5 Things to Watch in Detroit Lions Preseason Opener

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /
Detroit Lions helmet. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Detroit Lions helmet. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Football is finally back! The 2016 Detroit Lions take to the preseason field for the first time Friday night in Pittsburgh. Here are five things I’ll be watching for from the Lions in the opener.

5. Taylor Decker and Riley Reiff

Detroit has a new tackle combination with first-round pick Taylor Decker manning the left side and longtime starter Riley Reiff sliding from that LT spot to the right side. Reiff has impressed all camp and Decker has received generally positive reviews, too. This time it’s different as the Steelers bring a creative and nasty pass rush attack from an unfamiliar 3-4 formation. Decker will likely get at least one series against James Harrison. I want to see confidence from both tackles, but also improvement in the run blocking. If Reiff could break a facemask or two like he’s done in practice sessions, that would send a positive message.

4. The tight ends

With Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew both out, it’s a golden opportunity for the rest of the Lions tight ends to step up and make a positive impression. No tight end who will play for Detroit has ever caught a pass in a Lions uniform.

Cole Wick has the buzz of a strong camp and mock game behind him. Pittsburgh has some lithe linebackers in Vince Williams and Lawrence Timmons who are good in coverage. Wick has looked strong against Detroit’s LBs in coverage, but that’s the biggest weakness on the team. If he can do it against the yellow and black attack, I’ll feel a lot more confident in the undrafted rookie from Incarnate Word.

Matthew Mulligan and Orson Charles will also get a lot of chances. There hasn’t been much camp chatter about either, though Charles ran well in last weekend’s mock game. Expectations are a little higher for these veterans to step up and seize a role.

3. Offensive pass routes

Calvin Johnson is gone, and with his retirement the “just chuck it at Calvin” portion of the playbook is gone too. Jim Bob Cooter’s offense is now more about timing, precision and variety.

This will be our first look at how they square up a different opponent. How will the route combos string together? Will there be a lot of trips looks or motion? Will Theo Riddick play in the slot and attack more down the field? Who gets the vertical shots down the field? I’m very curious to see the interplay between the receivers out in the routes, the spacing, the timing, etc.

I’m not nearly as focused on how well the passing plays out. While it would be great to see Stafford, Orlovsky and Rudock complete a high percentage and look in rhythm, I’m more curious how the new receivers like Marvin Jones, Jay Lee, Quinshad Davis and Andre Roberts look in their routes.

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2. Strong safety play

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from watching the Detroit Lions practice and mock game is the gaping hole at strong safety. While James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul Quddus weren’t great, they sure appear to be sorely missed.

The camp battle being waged by Tavon Wilson, Rafael Bush, Miles Killebrew and even Don Carey has no real favorite at this point. Bush will start, and I expect to see a lot of fourth-round pick Killebrew. The Steelers are sitting Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and other weapons so this won’t be a great test. Still, it would be nice to see at least one of these guys pass it with flying colors.

1. Defensive Line depth

The starting defensive line of Ziggy Ansah, Tyrunn Walker, Haloti Ngata and Devin Taylor is very low on the worry list for these Detroit Lions. Don’t expect to see much of that group.

It’s the guys behind them, especially at end, who I will be watching carefully. Wallace Gilberry and Brandon Copeland both figure to play a lot at end. It’s an important game for Copeland, who has had some standout moments in camp but still needs to prove himself. Rookie Anthony Zettel from nearby Penn State will also see extensive action in his quest to make the final 53-man roster. It will be our first look at free agent pickup Quanterus Smith, who could really impress if he’s healthy.

Inside, all eyes are on A’Shawn Robinson. He’s not had a good go of it in Latrobe in the combined practices. The second-round pick from Alabama isn’t a pass rusher, but he needs to be an impact presence inside against both the run and pass. I also want to see Stefan Charles handle the old Jason Jones role of base end who kicks inside as a nickel rusher.