August 24, 2009 at 3:17 pm

John Niyo

Lions stumble over their new leaf

Lions rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, background, tries to stop Eric Wright of the Browns shortly after Wright intercepted Stafford's pass Saturday night in Cleveland. Wright returned it to the Lions 15. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Cleveland

So much for turning the page.

In Saturday night's 27-10 exhibition loss at Cleveland, the Lions looked frighteningly like the team that went 0-16 last season, even understanding all the lineup tinkering and vanilla game planning.

It was chapter and verse as they whiffed on tackles, missed assignments, dropped passes and fumbled away first downs -- all in short order. The Lions fell behind, 20-0, less than 11 minutes into the game and never really recovered against the Browns, a team that entered the second exhibition game with all sorts of its own issues.

Now, heading into a critical Week 3 of the preseason, here are some of the problems facing coach Jim Schwartz and his staff:

Default position?

In the fight for the No. 1 quarterback job, who will get the critical start Saturday against Indianapolis at Ford Field?

"I haven't decided yet," Schwartz said immediately after the loss. "We'll decide that when we have time to digest this one. There's going to be a lot of work that goes into this one."

Odds are, it'll be Daunte Culpepper after rookie Matthew Stafford took a step back with his shaky outing against the Browns. After another costly interception early in his first NFL start it's hard to say he's both "the best" and "ready" -- the criteria Schwartz set for the No. 1 overall pick to win the regular-season starting job out of the gate.

Culpepper, who didn't talk to the media after Saturday's game, hasn't been overly impressive, either -- the first-team offense has produced only a field goal in nearly four quarters of work -- but the veteran avoided turnovers for the second straight game. And that may be enough for now, though Stafford's not ready to concede.

"No, I'm going to battle week in and week out," he said. "Whether I'm starting Day 1 or not, I'm going to be putting pressure on whoever is the starter for as long as I'm here, trying to get in there."

Not-so special

Special teams is an area of emphasis with the new coaching staff. But that was hardly apparent Saturday.

Josh Cribbs is arguably the NFL's best return man, but he made it look way too easy in the first quarter against the Lions, who are missing a couple of key coverage men in Cody Spencer (injured reserve) and Casey FitzSimmons (ankle). Cribbs' 95-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff was called back because of a late holding penalty. But there were no flags on his 84-yard punt return for a score, just lots of missed tackles.

"There's no reason to start the game the way we did on special teams," Schwartz said. "It's a work in progress, but were going to find out who can tackle and who can't. That's going to be a major criteria for making this team."

Stan Kwan's return unit wasn't much better, averaging 18.6 yards on kickoffs. And that's a growing concern, with Aveion Cason perhaps getting too many reps and neither rookie Derrick Williams nor Aaron Brown distinguishing himself. When you have too many returners, Schwartz noted the other day, that means you don't have any.

No safety valve

The Browns' opening drive had it all, and none of it was a good sign for the Lions' defense, though keep in mind this isn't the blitz-heavy play-calling you'll see in the regular season.

But while the front seven is an easy target -- and the lack of a pass rush early doesn't bode well -- the weakest link may lie in the secondary.

Five Browns wide receivers had catches of 20 yards or more Saturday night. Two came on the opening drive against starting cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, but the depth behind them is a real worry, especially with Keith Smith (groin) still on the sideline.

"Our corners need to get up and challenge guys," Schwartz said. "We need to find out who will have the confidence to get up and challenge rather than playing cautious."

They also need to find another safety who can stop the run alongside rookie Louis Delmas. Kalvin Pearson had trouble again in run support Saturday, and LaMarcus Hicks didn't fare any better replacing him. It was the same against Atlanta in the exhibition opener. Marquand Manuel, who has a calf injury, should get a shot to start when he's healthy.

Wide open

This criticism comes with an asterisk, since none of the Lions' top three receivers has played yet in exhibition play. But the rest of the bunch hasn't produced as it should, adding an inexcusable handful of dropped passes and two fumbles Saturday.

"We had way too many dropped passes," Schwartz said. "I don't know how many times we had first downs, and all of a sudden, a ball was dropped and we're sitting in third-and-long. We left way too many plays on the field from a dropped-pass and fumble standpoint."

That leaves the door open for someone to grab a final roster spot or two. Dane Looker, signed as a free agent last week, had a solid debut and could put pressure on others, including John Standeford, who wasn't his usual sure-handed self.

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The bad

  • The missed tackles on special-teams coverage and in run support by the safeties raised red flags.
  • Four fumbles and more drops from receivers make it even harder to fairly evaluate the quarterbacks.
  • Unlike the exhibition opener against Atlanta, the rookies made mostly mistakes, not big plays.

  • The ugly

  • A fight between teammates in pregame warm-ups? Save it for the other team, fellas.

  • More John Niyo