Niyo: Lions backup QB race offers little comfort

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matt Cassel scrambles out of the pocket for a gain in the third quarter during Friday's preseason game against the New York Giants.

Detroit — Jake Rudock lunged toward the goal line, stretched the football forward and finally got somewhere. The official raised his arms to signal a touchdown. And the loudspeakers at Ford Field soon blared the Lions’ fight song.

But Rudock’s face was twisted in disgust as he left the field. And even as he stood on the sidelines congratulating some of his offensive linemen, the expression never really changed.


“We were losing,” he said, after the Lions’ preseason home opener against the New York Giants.

Indeed, they lost, 30-17, in Matt Patricia’s Ford Field debut. And since the head coach couldn’t find a reason to smile on the sideline Friday night, the players wisely followed suit.

Not that they felt any differently, following an ugly preaseason home opener that saw the Lions getting manhandled early and all too often for anyone’s liking, and trailing 24-3 midway through the fourth quarter.

Asked afterward for an assessment of his team’s performance, Patricia was short on specifics but fairly blunt about the overall display.

“I don’t think we played particularly well at all at any position,” he said.

What’s worse, they played particularly poorly at several of them, most notably on the offensive line.

The prioritized run game that showed some potential in Oakland quickly ground to a halt Friday, producing just 67 yards on 22 carries. And Matthew Stafford, who sat out last week’s preseason opener in Oakland, played only three series Friday — dropping back to pass on seven of his 14 snaps — yet had to feel lucky he escape unscathed.

Stafford was sacked twice, nearly had his throwing arm detached on another attempt and actually was credited with a fumble on a running play that got blown up when the Giants’ Damon “Snacks” Harrison ate Graham Glasgow’s lunch off the snap.

Both starting tackles, Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner, allowed hits on the franchise quarterback, and backup Kenny Wiggins — subbing for T.J. Lang at right guard — struggled mightily Friday, as did most of the second-unit linemen.

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A losing battle

All of which only served to highlight one other area of concern for the Lions with the regular season kicking off in three weeks: The backup quarterback job.

The next preseason game in Tampa is supposed to be the dress rehearsal. But if the Lions are playing it smart, they’ll leave Stafford home like Cinderella. And tell him not to bother looking for those glass slippers.

Because at the moment, the two quarterbacks battling for the No. 2 job — Rudock and Matt Cassel — aren’t exactly inspiring a lot of confidence with their play. Certainly not the way some others are around the league, including the Giants’ Davis Webb, who played the entire first half — all without either Odell Beckham Jr. or Saquon Barkley — and finished 14-for-20 for 140 yards and a touchdown.

Rudock rallied Friday with a couple late fourth-quarter touchdown drives running a no-huddle, two-minute offense, ending his night 23-of-30 for 171 yards and a touchdown. That’s a paltry 5.7 yards per attempt, but it’s something, I suppose. And when pressed after the game, Rudock took some solace in that late production.

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“I thought we were moving the ball pretty decent at the end, and were able to go down and get two scores, so that was good,” he said.

But he was also quick to note “it doesn’t matter,” when asked about that fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak with 26 seconds left.

“As a quarterback, we get judged on whether we win or lose,” he added. “And unfortunately, right now, we’ve lost twice.”

And they’re still losing too many battles when it matters, both in the trenches and at the skill positions, especially the quarterback spot.

It’s hard not to look around the league and wonder what the Lions are missing. Or what they’re seeing that we’re not. (Or what Colin Kaepernick must be thinking, for that matter.)

'A long way to go'

Stafford owns the third-longest active streak for consecutive games played by an NFL quarterback. His 112 straight starts — 115 including the playoffs — trails only the Chargers’ Philip Rivers (193 games) and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan (131) and matches Tom Brady (2009-16) for the eighth-longest streak in NFL history.

But Stafford was sacked 47 times last year — second-most in the league — and if Friday was any indication, he may take more than his share of hits this year as well.

So shouldn’t the Lions’ insurance policy offer a little more comfort than this?

Cassel got the starting nod last week in Oakland and looked a lot like a 36-year-old quarterback who has played for four different teams the last four seasons. He didn’t look demonstrably better Friday while playing three series in the third quarter, ending his night on a painful note as he got clobbered for a sack-fumble deep in Lions territory.

Friday, it was Rudock’s turn to get some work with the starters as he replaced Stafford midway through the second quarter. But the audition for the third-year pro got off to a rough start.

Starting first-and-10 from the Lions’ 40, Michael Roberts’ false-started to open the series. Then a LeGarrette Blount carry went for minus-1 yards. A short completion to Kenny Golladay gave Rudock a manageable third-down situation, but he appeared to check down too early with a throw to Hakeem Valles and the Lions were forced to punt again.

The second series went a little better, aided by a couple key Giants penalties to keep the drive alive. But it ended with another missed opportunity, and a missed 49-yard field-goal attempt as Matt Prater clanged one off the upright.

It was that kind of night for the Lions. And it has been that kind of preseason thus far.

There’s time to correct all that, across the board. But when you ask Patricia about that the No. 2 quarterback battle and he balks — “I think we still have a long way to go there,” he says — he’s certainly not lying.