Friday evening saw the first pre-season game of the Detroit Lions 2021 NFL campaign, at home against the Buffalo Bills, with fans finally returning to Ford Field.
The starters, as stated in advance, did get only one-quarter of action in the game, which the Lions lost to a Tyler Bass field goal with time almost expired.
So, what did we learn from the game?
Re: The Starters (offense)
Jared Goff throws a catchable ball. He got through his progressions well in completing 7 of 9 for 56 yards. This did however come with a shocking first attempted pass that could've been intercepted but was dropped. Another noticeable element was that his pocket presence was excellent, feeling pressure and escaping from collapsing pockets.
This O-line is still a work-in-progress. In run blocking some work is needed, with Jamaal Williams often being in the backfield which gave him almost no chance, finishing with 15 yards from 9 carries. In an offense that wants to establish the run, that isn't good enough. In pass blocking they fared better, giving Goff a good amount of protection and time to throw, except for the first 3rd down of the game, where Big V and Penei Sewell were resoundingly beaten for the sack. It's clear that Sewell still has a long way to go, and well, he's 20 years old, so there's time for it. Big V didn't have a great game, also being at fault for the holding call on Frank Ragnow by being beaten by his man inside leaving Ragnow with no option.
Amon-Ra St. Brown will be massive for this offense. His route running ability was incredibly sharp, beating a very solid defensive secondary seemingly with ease. He finished with 2/2 for 12 yards, and also caught a 12 yarder which was called back for the Ragnow penalty above. Tyrell Williams also had a good day, catching 2/4 for 30 yards and showed good feet for a toe-tap catch for 20 yards on the left sideline. One of his "drops" was a missed catch in the end zone from 20 yards out which could've been called for DPI.
Re: The Starters (defense)
With the DT room depleted, the Lions struggled early on in run defense and they didn't see a lot of support from the linebackers. Kevin Strong was a bright spark from that group with an excellent TFL in the first drive, shedding his blocker and exploding into the RB Devin Singletary to stop him in his tracks. In passing defense, the lineman didn't have a great number of opportunities to shine as the Bills were run-heavy with former Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky under center, but when they did have the chance, they didn't make a huge impact.
In terms of the DEs, against a run heavy attack it went as you might expect, with Flowers holding his own fairly well, but Romeo being beaten a couple of times.
The starting linebackers of Collins, Tavai and Anzalone all struggled. Indeed Collins and Tavai had the lowest PFF grades of any Lions defensive players (28.4 and 29.9 respectively). All struggled against the run and pass which was very worrying.
It's hard to judge the secondary's performance having faced such a run-heavy attack, but Tracy Walker missed a tackle and gave up a reception for a poor outing, while Oruwariye and Ford had good games with an assisted tackle here and there.
Best of the Rest
On offense, Craig Reynolds (who?) was the unlikely star. The former Kutztown player and 2019 UDFA was signed on Thursday, introduced himself to his teammates in the huddle, and proceeded to be the Lions' highest graded player (90.7), with 49 yards on 6 carries including an impressive 24 yard rush for the team's sole TD. Javon McKinley and Tom Kennedy were the pick of the receivers. McKinley caught a lovely 35 yard pass from David Blough late in the 4th as the Lions took the lead, with a lovely release and catch over his shoulder on the left sideline. Kennedy caught 4 of 6 for 46 to lead the Lions in yards and seemed to be a reliable pair of hands.
On defense, Derrick Barnes only got 8 snaps, but was the Lions highest-graded player (93.1) after a nice hit on Bills QB Davis Webb and a nice tackle in an impressive cameo. Bruce Hector also had a good game, with the 2nd most snaps on defense he logged 3 pressures and 3 tackles, all of which were stops. Austin Bryant continued his upwards trend with a hurry and 2tackles.
Room for Improvement
Tim Boyle had a day to forget at QB. He almost had to walk off the field injured but carried on which may have played some part, but the former Green Bay Packer struggled to find his rhythm and seems to lack touch on his throws. That, and every ball he throws is at 100mph.
Victor Bolden also had a poor day, not showing much on kick returns and dropping 2 catchable balls thrown his way. When you're battling for your place on the roster, you've got to make those.
On the Result
Yes, the Lions last. Same old Lions right? Can't even win a preseason game! Wrong. The Lions essentially had the game in the bag and could've killed enough clock to make life very difficult for Buffalo, but chose instead to allow Blough to pass the ball in the red zone late, killing the clock in the process. The reasons for doing so are two fold:
1) Give the offense a chance to practice their redzone passing offense - which you don't get too many game reps to practice.
2) Manufacture a meaningful two-minute defense scenario with the game on the line.
Yes you can win the game, but what does that actually do here? There will be times when backups are coming into a game late through injury faced with that 2 minute scenario and they need to be tested. It was absolutely the right decision on all counts, and it almost worked until Bobby Price allowed a catch on 4th down early in the drive (Price otherwise had a very good game himself, with 3 tackles and a PBU).
With roster cutdown day approaching (Tuesday 17th), it was important for some of these guys to separate themselves from the crowd and make it to game 2 next week. For the starters, it was important to build some chemistry on the hallowed Ford Field turf. There's still a lot of room for improvement here, but there were some encouraging signs and that's all I needed.
Roll on the Steelers on the 22nd.
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