Do things right, and you can play well no matter who plays or doesn't play.
Do things wrong, and it's just the opposite.
That's what we learned about the Detroit Lions in the 2021 preseason, with the Lions' final exam being Friday night's 27-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Ford Field.
We learned again that the Lions have trouble winning when they have lapses and breakdowns, and that's what cost them in a loss that made them 0-3 in the preseason under first-year head coach Dan Campbell.
The Lions' performance wasn't all bad, especially considering they played mostly backups.
With the regular season – the real season – next up, perhaps the best thing we learned about the Lions Friday night and throughout the preseason that should hearten Campbell and his staff is that there is no shortage of the Lions' desire to compete.
Among the other things we learned include the following: The Lions came out running Friday night, and stuck with it; big plays and misplays continued to hurt the Lions, including one by a veteran who had an otherwise good game; they couldn't get off the field in the fourth quarter, and the Colts took advantage of it; and a rookie running back put some production in the offense – and some fun in the game to go with it.
We start with Campbell, the good and bad of Friday night's game and the preseason and his focus:
Campbell is looking ahead to the Lions' opening game against the 49ers and beyond.
"I'm encouraged," he said in his postgame press conference. "I am. Do we still have work to do? Yeah. We have a lot of work to do.
"We have time. The hardest thing is to have urgency and patience at the same time. I don't know how to do that, but I'm working on it. There are things I see in all three phases that we're improving in. We are.
"Guys are improving. It's a process. We're getting there. That's the most important thing. We have to get a little better every week and improve.
"I do believe we have the right makeup of guys and the right core to give us a chance."
On the run: No surprise that offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn made a concerted effort to run the ball. Overall, it was fairly successful – 26 called runs for 98 yards, excluding quarterback David Blough’s four scrambles for 14 yards.
Big plays, misplays: It's an old problem for the Lions—giving up big plays and misplays -- and it cropped up again.
Dezmon Patmon beat cornerback Mike Ford for a 60-yard catch, when Ford said he dropped his coverage when he felt Patmon drop his route.
"My eyes got a little greedy," said Ford, who played well otherwise.
Deon Jackson scored the Colts' clinching touchdown on a 42-yard run with 1:50 left. The defense needed to turn the ball back over to the offense and couldn't.
And three plays after the Colts made it 17-17 with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, Blough had an interception in Lions territory that set the Colts up to kick a field goal for a 20-17 lead.
As we've seen before, better quarterbacks have made worse throws with more at stake than a preseason game, but it was a bad play on Blough's part on a third and one.
"He'll be the first to tell you, the throw he had, he was a little late on it," Campbell said. "That's what happens (the pick)."
Time check: The defense had trouble getting off the field in the second half. Indy's two fourth-quarter TDs came at the end of drives that covered 92 yards on 19 plays and 88 yards on nine plays.
High flyer: Some of the young players competing for roster spots might never face a more stressful experience than the one they faced Friday night with cut-down day looming on Tuesday
With all the tension and pressure, there are still some light moments in the game. Rookie running back Jemar Jefferson provided one on a seven-yard run in the first half.
With a defender in front of him in position to make the tackle, Jefferson took the high road.
He vaulted over the defender, and landed on his feet to complete the run for a seven-yard gain.
"I feel like that whole play was just all instinct," said Jefferson, who had 11 carries for 43 yards – all in the first half. "I saw him, and then my first reaction was to jump.
"I was in the air, like 'Wow. This is crazy. I'm in the air.' And then I landed on my feet. I was just amazed."
Strip away all the trappings down to the core, and football is still a game played by young men who can have fun.