Week 2 of the kind-of football season is upon us, and the Bengals will soon face the Lions in Motown. Both teams were pretty impressive in their first preseason action, so this should be a very intriguing matchup, especially for those who like to see roster bubble players jousting for an opportunity to earn a position on their team’s respective 53-man roster. We spoke with Chris Lemieux of Pride of Detroit, SB Nation’s Lions blog, to hear about this year’s Detroit squad and what to expect in Week 2 of the preseason.
Connor Howe: The Lions' first team looked pretty good in its Week 1 matchup with the Steelers. Are you all-in on Jim Bob Cooter, and how many games do you think the Lions can win if things go right this year?
Chris Lemieux: I think Cooter is a brand new, shiny thing to focus on during the preseason, but it'll be interesting to see what happens when gets into the season. Either way, his offense has brought the Lions into the 21st century for football. Distributing the ball, a power run scheme, quick release plays and efficiency in short yardage plays have all helped smooth over the miasma left by Joe Lombardi's system, which was a complete mismatch. If anything it plays to Matthew Stafford's strengths, which is a good thing.
I am, however, extremely bearish on the chances of the Lions this year. Yes, the offense looks like it could be pretty neat, but there are huge questions at offensive line that can and will cripple this team, the running game is still negligible and the linebacking unit is struggling. Even with DeAndre Levy coming back I'm not sure how that last one gets fixed. But if I said a number, there's liable to be a few Lions fans who will get angry and declare that I'm not actually a fan of this team.
CH: Marvin Jones only hauled in a single pass last game, but he looked pretty good doing it. Do you think he'll be Detroit's number one option in the passing game, or do you think that's still Golden Tate's job to lose?
CL: It's still Tate's to lose, but going back to what the offense is now, I think Marvin Jones will still see a lot of action. In general the first team skill position players just played one series against the Steelers so Jones had a small sample size working on him. The Lions should probably be targeting a good mix of Tate, Jones, Anquan Boldin in the slot, Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron; it just fits the desire to distribute the ball more evenly. I'm never going to claim the wide receivers got better without Calvin Johnson because that's utterly insane, but there are more viable options for the Lions to roll with rather than just constantly looking for that Megatron-sized safety valve. We'll see how that works out.
CH: Eric Ebron has completely fallen off the national radar as a player, and I think that makes him an interesting guy to keep an eye on, as well as a potential fantasy sleeper. How's he looking, and do you think this is the year he finally breaks out?
CL: There's so many Detroit fans who are firmly committed to crapping on Eric Ebron no matter the situation. When Ebron went down hard during training camp (I was there and it looked really bad in the moment) there were fans braying for him to be cut. When it turned out that Ian Rapoport's comments about his injury possibly being an achilles proved false, some folks were sending us social media comments to the effect that Ebron had done something wrong even on this. I don't understand it, but people still won't let Aaron Donald go neither.
Oh right, the question. If he's healthy, he could be pretty good. We've been picking over his drop numbers and trying to figure out what all has led to this narrative, but he doesn't drop as much as advertised and the offense is now suited towards his strengths as a passing threat. That could indeed translate into more touchdowns if he's in the game and the red zone is before him.
CH: Detroit is sneaky deep at wide receiver, with Boldin, Andre Roberts and Jeremy Kerley all battling for snaps behind Tate and Jones. Who do you like most of the three?
CL: Boldin's in as the third receiver, no question (especially with the money they gave him). It's impressive how in synch he is with Matthew Stafford. Matt can read defenders on one side of the field right before turning and putting it right on the button to Boldin, and the old tiger runs routes that T.J. Jones is at times unclear about with Stafford.
I think there's going to be some heavy competition for either Roberts or Kerley to make the team. As you say, it's been very deep and the last roster spots are all up for grabs. The bottom end of the receiver corps has been one of the more interesting battles during training camp and neither of them have done anything to stand out from the crowd. They're in play along with Jones, seventh-rounder Dwayne Washington, plus undrafted free agents Jay Lee, Quinshad Davis and Jace Billingsley. You could see any combination of them during the preseason game.
CH: With guys like Darius Slay, Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead and Glover Quin, Detroit certainly has the personnel to be successful. I assume you think the unit will improve this year (as that's what I think will happen), but do you think the defense has the potential to be among the top 10 in the NFL?
CL: I don't know if I can go top 10, but I'll tell you that the defensive line is probably the biggest strength of this Lions team right now. Haloti Ngata is the big name but Devin Taylor is looking impressive in the preseason and he'll be coming off the edge alongside Ansah once the season gets under way. The second tackle is probably going to Tyrunn Walker, but the Lions have their second-round pick in A'Shawn Robinson. I don't expect him to start when the season begins, but I wager he'll get a spot as the season progresses, either by injury or improvement or someone falling off or what have you.
The first impression everyone's given me out A'Shawn out of training camp seems to always be "wow, I can't believe how big he is."
The secondary should perform well (especially Slay, who had some unconscious lockdown potential last year) and the safeties look to be set on Quin and Rafael Bush. However, I'm concerned with the linebackers with this team, especially when Levy has been out. This was a great weakness last year, and it's getting wearisome watching the Lions get picked apart over the middle.
CH: How is Detroit looking on the injury front?
CL: Running backs: Ameer Abdullah has been practicing in no-contact jerseys and was out against the Steelers on account of his offseason surgery but it shouldn't be a longstanding concern.
Linebackers: Depth is becoming a problem due to injuries. Jon Bostic is out two to three months. Khaseem Greene and Josh Bynes both have injuries. Levy is coming back from NFI but it's easy to get afeared when he went through this same routine of preseason injury questions last year. The Lions have been forced to play rookie Antwione Williams at will linebacker, which he's never played, while waiting for Levy to return. This unit was already in trouble last year with keeping things together and it's not looking pretty right now.
Tight ends: Help. God, help, please God help help help help help help.
CH: Dwayne Washington tore it up in the Lions' first preseason game. Who do you think will turn heads this week?
CL: My heart, and all of the POD staff's hearts, are planted on our boy from Winnemucca, Nevada: Jace Billingsley, who you should read more about here. He's been a phenomenal story and we've got a ton of readers and Twitter followers right now from the Winnemucca who are following along their hometown boy. Jace was on the third string offense against the Steelers and had one of the great highlights of the night when he juked so hard three Steelers ran into each other right before he dodged three more for a 27-yard touchdown.
Jace Billingsley, the Pride of @PrideOfDetroit #Lions pic.twitter.com/evi0LPot47— Ryan (@Ryan_POD) August 13, 2016
In the Detroit sports vocabulary, what he did is called "Datsyukian."
We want more of this.
There's also good potential for the defense to show up in preseason too. Rookie A'Shawn Robinson was creating some real opportunities for the defensive ends to make plays on passing attempts. Kerry Hyder impressed me during training camp and I'm hoping to see his name show up too.