Lions vs. Browns preview

Posted Aug 9, 2014

Tim Twentyman takes a look at five storylines to follow in the Lions' preseason opener vs. the Browns.

The start of the preseason can’t come soon enough for Detroit Lions players. They're tired of facing the same teammates and schemes day after day in the dog days of August.

The hitting starts for real Saturday night vs. Cleveland and it’ll be the first time we get to see this coaching staff, these schemes and this collection of players in action.

For the coaches it’ll be the first of four real-game evaluations and the ever watchful camera will have a close eye on it all.

Competitions for starting positions will begin to ramp up and certain players will begin to stake their claim on roster spots.

“What we’re looking for is alignment, assignment, communication, technique. Make sure our fundamentals are solid,” head coach Jim Caldwell said.

“That’s what we’ve really been working on the last few weeks, and it’s really important to us in terms of a base and foundation. So we hope to see some guys execute those extremely well. Those are the areas we are focusing on. We are improving every day.”

There will be a lot to watch, but here are five storylines to follow:

1. The new No. 9

His drops are different, his reads are different and Matthew Stafford has learned a whole new batch of plays this offseason.

He’s essentially started over with a new coaching staff and Saturday night is sort of the unveiling – albeit a vanilla preseason version.

This is a big year for Stafford and there are lofty expectations on his shoulders.

His new head coach and new offensive coordinator have worked with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, respectively, and both players have credited Caldwell and Joe Lombardi with having an important hand in their development.

Can they have a similar effect on Stafford?

The coaches have been focusing on Stafford’s fundamentals and his mechanics, and want him to take better care of the football.

Stafford isn’t likely to play long, but coaches will want to see him run the offense efficiently, run it with an up-tempo pace and not make mistakes.

2. Defensive scheme

Defensive players have been clamoring to hit someone else.

“When you’re in shorts (at practice) the quarterbacks know they’re not going to be hit,” safety Glover Quin said. “Receivers know they’re not going to get hit. The d-line can’t rush to pressure the quarterback. It’s more of an offensive day of practice.

"But when you put the pads on and the d-line can get after the quarterback ... we can definitely get to the ball to make some plays."

This defense is going to be more aggressive and it’s designed to make more of those plays.

A few things to look for will be:

-- Will they blitz more as advertised?

-- How much does the SAM linebacker play on the line of scrimmage and how often does he come after the quarterback?

-- How much man defense will they play behind the front seven?

The Lions want to be a defense that runs to the football and creates turnovers. This will be the first look at Teryl Austin’s new scheme.

 3. Rookie contributions

It’s still unclear if first-round pick Eric Ebron will play after missing a couple of days of practice this week with an undisclosed injury.

Ebron has made some big plays down the field in training camp and the expectation is that it will translate to the game.

He’s gotten much better over the last week in the dropped passes department, too, and he seems to be putting it all together.

Kyle Van NoyLB Kyle Van Noy (Photo: Detroit Lions)

It’s been hard to truly evaluate Kyle Van Noy because there’s been a limited amount of hitting so far in camp. Linebackers are best evaluated when the pads come on.

Van Noy is going to get after the quarterback quite a bit from that SAM linebacker spot and tonight is the first time we’ll get to see him in full go mode. Is he the playmaker the Lions hope he is?

Rookies Nevin Lawson, Larry Webster, Travis Swanson, Cornelius Lucas and Caraun Reid have all flashed at times in practice. Will it translate to the game?

Kicker Nate Freese is in a tough competition with Giorgio Tavecchio to see who will win the Lions kicking job. He needs to perform when the pressure is on.

4. Slay

Second-year cornerback Darius Slay has played well in camp thus far and he’ll have to play well this season if the Lions are going to be improved on defense.

Slay battled with inconsistencies and confidence issues as a rookie, but insists both issues are behind him now.

He has the speed, size and a skill set to be a good cornerback in this league. He says he’s way more comfortable in this man scheme under Austin. We'll see.

Slay needs to come out and play well so those confidence issues don’t start to creep back into his consciousness.

5. Johnny Football

He’s not a Lion, but let’s not pretend that all eyes won't be on Johnny Football whenever he enters the game.

The big question with Manziel is if his make-it-up-as-he-goes brand of football will translate to the NFL. He can throw the football and he's pretty smart, so it probably will, but we'll see.

The Lions will focus on containing him in the pocket and force him to make timing throws in rhythm.

The defense gets to work against a pocket quarterback in Brian Hoyer and a playmaker in Manziel. That’s good preparation for the first preseason game.

Manziel mania has taken over the NFL and the Lions defense would like nothing more than to knock him around a little bit and become part of the story.