Observations: Lions flex depth in win against Panthers in preseason finale


Depth. You want to know why the hype train might be for real -- why these Detroit Lions might not flop like all the Detroit Lions teams before them -- and the answer has always been depth. They’ve got more of it than in years. Decades, maybe.

And on the final night of the preseason, Detroit flexed that depth in a 26-17 exhibition win against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

Undrafted rookie receiver Dylan Drummond capped a strong summer by catching five of his six targets, three of which he dived for, and one of which came on a critical third-and-long that set up an early score. Antoine Green, another rookie in the mix for one of the final jobs at receiver, caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater just before halftime.

Yet another rookie, cornerback Khalil Dorsey, returned the first kickoff of the game 62 yards. Yet another rookie, cornerback Steven Gilmore, scored on a pick-six. And Chase Lucas turned up the volume on the cornerback competition by fully extending for an impressive interception in his own end zone with just 51 seconds left before halftime.

Green made Carolina pay for the mistake by running through the defense for a 70-yard touchdown just moments later, finally showing off the speed that lured Brad Holmes to take a seventh-round flier on him. Then Dorsey immediately forced a fumble with his right shoulder on the very next play from scrimmage, setting up a Riley Patterson field goal as time expired. And just like that, Detroit rattled off 20 quick unanswered points to take a 20-10 lead into the break.

The score never mattered of course -- not with all the starters in street clothes for the third straight exhibition -- but the big plays from across the bubble showed the kind of depth we’ve been looking at all summer, and Detroit will have some tough decisions to make as roster cuts loom on Tuesday.

Let’s get to some more observations:

-- There are so many reasons the Lions brought in Teddy Bridgewater, but thank God they did, because quarterback Nate Sudfeld was carted to the locker room with what appeared to be a right knee injury in the third quarter. Bridgewater also happens to be a better quarterback than Sudfeld, and can give the backup offense better looks. And after settling in over the last couple weeks, we finally started to see it in Carolina. Bridgewater led Detroit to two touchdowns and two field goals on six series, while another ended with a missed field goal. He completed 13 of 22 passes overall for 178 yards, one touchdown, no turnovers and a passer rating of 100.2.

-- Here’s hoping you had something better to do on a Friday night than watch a preseason finale. But for those degenerates who did watch the game -- hi, fellow degenerate here -- perhaps you can begin to understand the difficulty of the decisions to be made at receiver. With Jameson Williams suspended to open the season, there are one or two jobs available behind Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond and Marvin Jones. And there are three good candidates in the mix.

At this point, I think it’ll be hard for the Lions to cut Drummond. Call it the Tom Kennedy Effect -- he’s a guy who does everything right and produces more than his competition, so how can you tell him he’s out of a job after all that? Drummond went from zero contract offers after the draft to just one tryout after that, then went on to produce more than everyone else on the second team in camp. The only hole in his resume was in-game production, and he checked that box too against Carolina, diving for three passes while catching five of the six balls thrown his way, including a big one where he fully extended on third down.

As for what happens after that, who knows? Chase Cota is a big target who strung together some good practices over the last two weeks, but dropped two passes in his final chance to leave an impression, one of which was in the end zone. Antoine Green didn’t do enough in camp, but has better size and speed than Drummond, and finally showed it with the 70-yard touchdown against Carolina. No one else in that competition can do that.

No matter what happens at wide receiver, hat’s off to Drummond and Green for balling out against the Panthers, making a tough decision even tougher heading into cuts.

-- Can we please stop debating who the third running back is? Craig Reynolds has been solid in that role before, still has the trust of the coaches despite missing a couple weeks of camp with an injury, and has been fed a steady diet of RB3 reps since returning . And once the backup offensive line started to finally pave some holes for him, he popped, running 11 times for 41 yards and one really nice 5-yard touchdown against Carolina. He was always going to be RB3, and he beat that horse again tonight.

-- After sending one of the league’s worst pass rushes onto the field the last few years, well, just look at the demolition that occurred against Carolina on Friday night. James Houston was untouchable for the second straight week, got home for one sack against Ikem Ekwonu -- the former sixth overall pick in the draft -- and racked up three quarterbacks overall. He also drew defensive holding on yet another play where he blew past his man.

Then there was Romeo Okwara, who also made easy work of Carolina’s offensive line, and got home for a sack of his own. Both Houston and Okwara have come on strong in recent weeks -- and both guys remain within shouting distance of the roster bubble because Detroit is so damn deep at the position. Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, John Cominsky and Josh Paschal lead the way, and none even played in Carolina. Then the guys who did play made convincing cases they deserve roster spots, too. Someone has to go, and it just might be Julian Okwara, the former third-round pick who has three sacks in the preseason and a fourth that was nullified by penalty. That, folks, is depth.

-- Sticking with the defensive line for a moment, hat’s off to Levi Onwuzurike. The former second-round pick has known nothing but adversity since turning pro, and had his shoulder pads on for about 5 minutes in his first two training camps combined. But he’s managed to stay healthy for the entirety of this camp, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s starting to flash that interior pass rush we heard so much about from his days at Washington. He’s been coming on strong for weeks, then put an exclamation point on his preseason by carving up the Panthers’ offensive line for a handful of pressures, one quarterback hit, one near-sack, plus added a tackle 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage for good measure.

-- Having said all that about the pass rush, rookie quarterback Bryce Young did move the ball effectively on the ground, running three times for 21 yards. Don’t want to read too much into the preseason -- where no starters played for the Lions -- but it’s worth pointing out they’ve struggled to handle mobile quarterbacks in the past, and they’ve got Patrick Mahomes waiting on deck. Just saying.

-- Derrick Barnes did not play against Carolina, which could suggest he’s won the starting linebacker job alongside Alex Anzalone. But rookie Jack Campbell isn’t making that decision an easy one. The first-round pick led the Lions in tackles in each of the first two preseason games, then earned the start against Carolina and immediately racked up three more tackles on the game’s first drive. Then his day was done, too. Here’s betting Barnes has earned the right to start against Mahomes on opening night, and Detroit will lean on that experience against the best quarterback on the planet. But Campbell is going to play too, and if his rapid ascent in camp is any indication, he’ll be awfully hard to keep off the field soon enough.

-- It was interesting to see cornerback Khalil Dorsey get the start over Steven Gilmore, who had been the guy at that spot in previous weeks. I don’t know what that means, if anything, but Dorsey made the most of his opportunity by forcing that fumble before halftime -- leading to three more points before the break -- and also returning a kick 62 yards. He’s a good candidate for the practice squad, if nothing else. And it was a nice way for the kid to end a camp where he had been best known for knocking out tight end Shane Zylstra for the season with a questionable hit.

-- The Lions didn’t even play Parker Romo in Carolina, essentially handing their kicker job to Riley Patterson. But Patterson refused to make that decision easy, missing short from 53 yards and also pushing a point-after try wide of the posts. Patterson is mostly reliable from inside 50 yards, but simply doesn’t have the leg strength to achieve consistency beyond that. And for a team with title aspirations, that’s a liability.

-- Detroit finished the preseason 2-1, whatever that means. Now it’s on to the real thing, and the world-champion Kansas City Chiefs are officially on the clock.


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