Can Matt Willis make more catches like this gem last week? (Photo courtesy Detroit Lions)
Kent Lee Platte, DLD Contributor
If wins counted in the preseason, the Lions would be off to a hot start after their win over the Jets on Friday. Raw, developmental, so-not-ready 5th overall draft pick Ziggy Ansah intercepted an errant Mark Sanchez pass and ran it back for the game’s first score and the game was never in doubt from that moment forward. Since this IS preseason, however, the team is looking for answers more than it is looking for wins, and there are still plenty of questions that need answering. This Thursday will see the Lions face off against their common preseason foe and neighbors to the South, the Cleveland Browns. The Lions play the AFCN in the regular season, so this game presents an interesting dynamic that wasn’t present against the hapless Jets last week.
Who’s taking on Joe Thomas?
First question and I already have an Ansah. I also get my quota of puns in, so we can all be glad that’s over. Ansah generated minimal pressure against three time Pro Bowler D’Brickashaw Ferguson after his first big play, but he made a nice move in the run game that showcased why the Lions drafted the former BYU Cougar so highly. It doesn’t get any easier this week as he takes on an even less attractive draw with perennial All Pro Joe Thomas. Fan expectations are soaring after Ansah’s debut, but a poor showing could dull that enthusiasm despite the unreasonable expectations of beating someone like Thomas, who has been the benchmark of elite tackles since he was drafted. Should Ansah play well against Thomas, we can probably stop calling Ziggy a project two preseason games into his career.
The Best vs. The Best (Possibly)
Calvin Johnson is pretty much unanimously considered the best Wide Receiver in the NFL today. The best corner is up for debate, Darrell Revis if you think he’ll be back to pre injury form, Richard Sherman if you ask him, Patrick Peterson if you ask him, but if you ask unbiased sources you will often hear the name Joe Haden. Haden has shown himself to be one of the best young corners in the game today, but it’s one thing to be called that and another entirely to take on Calvin Johnson. Johnson was near unstoppable last season, and after making quick work of Antonio Cromartie it is Haden whose name comes up next. Can Megatron be contained? Or will Haden, like so many before him, find himself struggling just to bring the big man down?
Getting Slimmer in the Middle
The Browns haven’t had the best of luck this offseason on the interior of their line, with starting Guard Shawn Lauvao missing several weeks due to an ankle injury and replacement Jason Pinkston having a less than optimum outing. Though set on the outside at OT, and with solid Pro Bowl Center Alex Mack snapping the ball, the Guards have drawn the worst assignment they could have when injuries strike, taking on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. The two Defensive Tackles were a terror against the Jets, and didn’t seem to mind that All Pro Center Nick Mangold was there, so it’s hard to see the Browns faring much better. To make matters worse, the reserve Defensive Tackles all made names for themselves playing against the 2s and 3s. The outside battle between Ansah vs. Thomas and preseason superstar Willie Young vs. Mitchell Schwartz may be the most interesting, but the interior battle between the Lions Defensive Tackle corps and the Browns’ interior Olinemen should be the most exciting.
The Rich get Richer
Though they spent quite a bit of time banging their heads against the wall, the Browns rushers were able to get into space several times against a strong Rams defense, breaking runs of 8,9,11, and 12 yards. Granted, the longest run was on a scramble, but the Browns have been a run first team for years and from the looks of things they are getting their best weapon back in Trent Richardson. With no real standout besides Mack on the interior, it’s hard to see the Browns having much success from a blocking standpoint, but they WILL run the rock during the few series’ they have Trent Richardson to play with.
The Poor get Poorer
Meanwhile the Lions are still reeling with injuries in their secondary. Thankfully, none have been season ending as of yet, but the nagging injuries to players like Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Louis Delmas, and others have made the secondary a tough unit to evaluate. The Jets didn’t do much to threaten the outsides of the Lions’ defense, instead choosing to victimize the center of the Lions formations, but I don’t think that’s as likely against the Browns who made it a point to come out swinging against the Rams. Former Practice Squader and recent re-addition to the team Conroy Black should get some playing time, but the Lions will be paying special attention to their recent draft picks. Darius Slay didn’t allow any catches into his coverage against the Jets, but most of that was due to not being targeted. I’d like to see him get some challenges from Brandon Weeden before he takes on a much more challenging Quarterback on the Patriots, Tim Tebow. Wait, no, I meant Tom Brady. 2012 3rd round pick Bill Bentley and roster filler Dominique Johnson were victimized by the trio of Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and Greg McElroy, so both will be hoping to redeem themselves after that poor showing. Veteran Safety Chris Hope had a pretty poor day against the Jets as well, and will need to show he can provide valuable depth or face a similar fate to Brandon King who only lasted a week.
New Look Offenses
Neither the Browns nor the Lions offenses look the same in their preseason games as they had the previous season. The Lions played around with multiple formations both in the gun and under center while the Browns primarily played in Shotgun with their starters, a stark departure from what fans are used to. The Lions tried to run the ball more, getting mixed results from Reggie Bush and Mikel Leshoure and some poor results from the rest of their RB corps. Meanwhile the Browns had excellent success through the air, with 1st round pick Brandon Weeden shooting the ball all over the field. He seems to have the same problem Stafford used to, where he can only throw the ball one speed (Really fast), but it was accurate and that is something that should cause some pause to his detractors. Both offenses may have taken their previous preseason opponent off guard, despite being standard preseason vanilla, but there is now a week of tape to pour over and neither team will be as surprised.
Fleshing out the Roster
Right Tackle Jason Fox and Outside Linebacker Ashlee Palmer made some good plays to distance themselves in their respective roster battles, but it’s far from over with three more preseason games to play. Fox has the tougher challenge against the Browns, taking on Ahtyba Rubin and Tank Carder, but it will be interesting to see the Browns’ blockers in space taking on Palmer, whose biggest knock has always been his inability to get off his blocks. Just as interesting will be LaAdrian Waddle, the Lions’ reserve Left Tackle. An Undrafted Free Agent out of Texas Tech, Waddle has been making a strong case for a roster spot, but will be taking on Barkevious Mingo of the Browns with the 2nd team, who had his way with the Rams reserve O-linemen.
Pump the Brakes
Fans were wowed by the circus catches made by former Denver Bronco and Ninja Matt Willis. Willis made three catches against the Jets and for some fans that is enough to put him right in the front of the running for the 4th/5th WR spot. Kris Durham, who came into the game as one of the guys to beat, might have something to say about that having caught the only pass thrown at him for a nice run after the catch. Also still ahead of Willis is Patrick Edwards, who was practically uncoverable in camp, but was only targeted twice against the Jets. Edwards had Dee Milliner beat to the end zone on a deep go route, but Milliner adjusted at the last second to bat the pass away. The only other target for Edwards was overthrown by Hill on a miscommunication (Hill thought Edwards was challenging deep, Edwards tried to turn back), but he DID have a nice run back on a punt; Lions fans have almost forgotten what it looks like to see a run back from their own team. Matt Willis will get an extended look, which he earned with his play, but until he shows that he can make those contested catches against first team cornerbacks he is essentially the same player as Nate Hughes or Lance Long were a year ago.
This is Platte’s debut piece here, but he’s no rookie. Kent Lee Platte has been the Senior Lions Writer for thesilverdomeblues.com since its inception. Spending most of his adult life outside of Michigan in the Navy and later in Texas for work, he discovered a passion for writing about the Lions in part due to the fact that almost all of his football news came from the internet. He’d like to lay claim to being the Lions’ biggest fan, but that honor belongs to his six year old daughter, who is doing her very best to learn more about football than dad. A fully employed father of three, it is still a mystery how he ever has time to write anything, ever. You can follow Kent on Twitter @RestoreRoarMan