The Lions faced off against the Browns on Friday. Ford Field was packed to the brim with season ticket holders on family vacation, such as myself. Nevertheless, those who were there made plenty of noise in close junctures—of which there were many, because neither offense did much against either defense.
For all the horribleness of the Cleveland Browns in general, their defense was in fact outstanding last season: they had the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL. When you consider that defense was paired with a 30th-ranked (i.e., second-worst) offense, it’s even more impressive. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a cagey don’t-show-too-much-or-risk-too-much effort from Stafford & Co. didn’t result in much scoring.
It also shouldn't be a surprise that the defensive line hassled Brandon Weeden something fierce. It shouldn’t be a surprise that without Trent Richardson, the Browns couldn’t run the ball well. Unfortunately, it also shouldn’t be a surprise that once the backup secondary and linebackers were in, discipline in zone coverage and screens was severely lacking.
Seneca Wallace’s ability to extend plays resulted in frequent breakdowns, allowing the Browns to move the ball much more effectively in the second half. That, combined with Kellen Moore’s inability to find and deliver the ball to a downfield receiver, denied the Lions their eighth straight preseason victory.
It wasn’t good enough, was it?
As we know from 2008, thrilling fourth-quarter preseason comebacks usually mean the losing team didn’t care enough; so it seemed with the Lions. Matthew Stafford, about whom the press has been flat-out gushing all offseason long, threw an ugly ball off his back foot as he fell away from pressure that wasn’t so much there; Brandon Pettigrew ran the wrong route and the ball was picked off.
The players with something to prove took it seriously, and made an impact: Willie Young looked incredible, Bill Bentley had a pick (and should have had another), Keiland Williams continued his excellent camp form and Joique Bell showed why he’s been a camp sensation wherever he’s camped.
But some of those who had nothing to prove played like it; it looked like the offense was both executionally and playcallingly mailing it in. Against the stiffer-than-you might think Browns defense, the results were disappointing, especially from the passing game. However, the running game showed up for all four quarters. Kevin Smith opened the game with a nine-yard carry; by the end of the day Smith, Williams, Bell and Stefan Logan combined for 198 yards on 33 carries (exactly 6.0 YpC).
Special note has to be made of the offensive line here: the right side of the line, especially Gosder Cherilus, looked excellent, and the extra weight Rob Sims has chosen to carry shows in his ability to hold his ground at the point of attack. There was daylight for the backs, inside and outside, when it was mostly-starters against mostly-starters; that daylight waxed and waned as players subbed in and out on both sides, but on the whole it was a marked improvement from 2011.
The caveat to this is the play of Jeff Backus. Backus injured his thumb in camp; I have no idea to what extent that limited him on Friday but he didn’t look like himself. He was inconsistent against the run and the pass—sometimes he looked solid, others overwhelmed. He gave up the inside rush on the Stafford interception; the DE simply went to his inside shoulder and he wasn’t prepared. Backus tried everything once he was beaten, but he was beaten too easily.
The other concern is the second- and third-string back seven’s defense against screens and broken plays. This was an old Achilles heel of pre-Schwartz Lions defenses, but I thought this system was inherently stouter against such things. The lack of discipline in the second half was both obvious and lethal. Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace simply did too much damage, even considering they were doing it against backups.
So the Edmund Fitzgerald Trophy returns to the shores of Lake Erie for a year; in the long run that doesn’t matter. Here’s what does matter: 1) as a gestalt, the running game is improved, 2) as a gestalt, the back seven still struggles to make stops, 3) Jeff Backus is not his usual self.