Detroit Lions: 5 Things I’m Watching vs. Cincinnati

Travis Swanson is on the spot against Cincinnati. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Travis Swanson is on the spot against Cincinnati. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /
Travis Swanson is on the spot against Cincinnati. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Travis Swanson is on the spot against Cincinnati. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Lions host the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason home opener at Ford Field. I’ll be there catching the action live. Here are five things I’ll be specifically watching.

Does Darius Slay trail A.J. Green all over the field?

It’s been hinted at, but this is the first real chance to see if the Lions defense allows top cornerback Darius Slay to travel the field with Bengals star WR A.J. Green. Will Slay flop sides and line up marking Green no matter where he’s at on the formation?

This would be a change from the past, where Slay almost always played on the left side. Allowing him to track Green specifically is a sign the coaching staff is even more comfortable with him. It also shows confidence in the likes of Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs to handle business and adjust accordingly. Green is about as close to Calvin Johnson as anyone (Julio Jones?) in terms of size and style. That’s a challenge but also should provide a sense of familiarity for Slay.

Can someone step up at center?

Upon further reviews of the preseason opener against the Steelers, I thought the guards played well. There were gaffes and mistakes, but Laken Tomlinson and Joe Dahl especially stood out for having solid games.

Center was a different story. Travis Swanson performed physically okay but his line calls were errant. Take the play where Ryan Shazier knifed into the backfield and tackled Zach Zenner at the line; both the left tackle and guard down blocked, which left no one to pick up Shazier from the second level. Swanson has to recognize the defense and shift the line call here. It was a great play by Shazier, but it should have been harder for him to make it.

Graham Glasgow continued to struggle with leverage against the Steelers. I noted him being either on the ground or not in contact with any defender far too frequently. Cincinnati runs a 4-3 and that should be more familiar for the third-round rookie, but they’re also a very talented defensive front.

Gabe Ikard remains in the mix as well, and that mix got more crowded with this week’s addition of Lemuel Jeanpierre. This is the one offensive starting position with any real competition. Center is Swanson’s job to lose but most Lions fans wouldn’t mind someone taking it from him with strong play.

Can Dwayne Washington build on his debut?

It’s absurd to expect another kickoff return for touchdown, but that wasn’t the only thing the rookie seventh-round running back did impressively in Pittsburgh.

Showing solid hands, good spatial awareness and the ability to make a defender miss like that will elevate “Washington from Washington” up the running back depth chart. Zenner also fared well against the Steelers, making this battle one of the top focuses as the preseason continues.

How many screens can Detroit throw?

Jim Bob Cooter’s offense focuses a lot on precision and quickly exploiting the best matchup in the passing game. In Pittsburgh, that meant a lot of screens, swing passes and quick dumps to the outside.

This proved effective, but it would be nice to see the Detroit Lions attack more down the field. Dan Orlovsky did at times, notably the egregious Jeremy Kerley drop, but the predominance was the short passing game. I don’t expect Matthew Stafford to play much, so it’s on Dan-O and Jake Rudock to stretch the field. If they don’t at least try, opponents are going to catch on. Quickly.

Cincinnati has a strong and deep set of cornerbacks, but the biggest weakness on their defense is coverage by the linebackers and depth safeties (sound familiar?). I want to see Cooter work the intermediate sidelines and the deep middle instead of dialing up 20 plays where the throw doesn’t travel 3 yards downfield.

Tight end blocking

Aside from center, the biggest hole on the offense is at tight end behind Eric Ebron. With the talented starter out, the donut grows into the new monstrosity being sold at Ford Field.

Cole Wick must show more as a blocker if he’s to be taken seriously as the No. 2 tight end. In Pittsburgh his lack of strength and green technique both stood out. Orson Charles’ ticket to making the team is as an H-back, a blocker who can move and catch. He’s got the latter down but his blocking effort is substandard. The door is open for a guy like Adam Fuehne to at least earn practice squad merit if he proves capable of blocking.

This is another area where facing the Bengals is optimal. They’re deep and talented at defensive end, and their LBs are physical and run-oriented. If the Detroit Lions are to find success on the ground, the tight ends will be a key piece. Judging from last week and camp overall, don’t expect much.