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Lions' 3rd exhibition key to determining roles, jobs

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The third exhibition game simultaneously matters and it doesn't. For the team, the so-called dress rehearsal for the regular season is rarely indicative of future success or failure. But for the individual players, a breakout performance in the contest can help clearly define a role, or in some cases, win a job.

In 2014, Tahir Whitehead was largely an afterthought in the Detroit Lions' linebacker competition. Exclusively a special teams contributor his first two seasons, he entered training camp behind veteran Ashlee Palmer and second-round draft pick Kyle Van Noy for a defensive role. But a strong string of practices, and an injury to the rookie, cleared the path for Whitehead to start the third exhibition game where he put together a dominant performance, recording 11 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage.

It was that breakout moment that showed the Lions Whitehead had more to offer, and after signing a new contract with the team this offseason, he's entering the year as Detroit's starting middle linebacker.

Last year's third exhibition game belonged to unheralded running back Zach Zenner.

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Despite eye-popping numbers at South Dakota State, Zenner came to Detroit as an undrafted free agent. In the first two exhibition games, he laid down some decent film, but his eight-carry, 85-yard effort in game three was the exclamation point on his job application, helping earn him a spot on the team's 53-man roster.

On Saturday, the Lions travel to Baltimore for the team's third exhibition contest leading into the 2016 campaign. And, as always, there are jobs still to be claimed and roles still to be defined.

The Lions' starting lineup is largely set. There's unlikely to be any movement on the offensive side of the ball, but there's still a little uncertainty in the defensive backfield. For weeks, Rafael Bush has looked to have the vacant strong safety job firmly in his grasp, but fellow free-agent addition, Tavon Wilson, was working with the first-team defense earlier this week and will have an opportunity to state his case against the Ravens.

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As for jobs, there's healthy competition at a number of spots entering the contest. There are still decisions to be made at nearly every position, including what the team will do at quarterback behind Matthew Stafford, where rookie Jake Rudock has built a strong case to make the 53-man roster, but still has work to do to prove he's capable of handling the backup role over veteran Dan Orlovsky.

And one can't forget special teams, which Lions coach Jim Caldwell labeled a "huge" part of the evaluation process. It obviously matters in the return game, where receivers Andre Roberts and Jeremy Kerley have looked to impress, but it's just as critical for the players blocking for those two and tracking down Baltimore's kickoff and punt returners.

As for the game's value to the overall team, it's an opportunity to fine tune. The play calls will largely be vanilla — as they should be in a contest that doesn't count in the standings — but the expectations for execution don't change. On defense, the Lions want to do a better job stopping the run. Offensively, the top group wants to show the ability to finish drives after two trips to the red zone have resulted in a lost fumble and a field goal. Overall, the Lions are just 1-6 in red-zone opportunities this preseason after ranking second in the NFL last year.

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"We’ve moved the ball a little bit, we haven’t got the ball in the end zone with the starters and we’ve been close and we’ve had opportunities and really haven’t scored the points we would like to score," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "At the end of the day, they don’t give you any medals for having more yards or whatever than the other team. We’ve got to score points."

Regardless of what happens in Baltimore, it's unlikely to reflect on the regular season. Last year, Stafford had a great game, completing 11 of his 15 throws for 173 yards and two scores. He proceeded to throw 11 interceptions in the first eight regular season games. And no one remembers the 26-6 drubbing of the Browns in 2008, simply because Detroit went winless in the regular season.

The real action starts in two weeks. This exhibition game won't' be symbolic of what's to come in the regular season, but it is a key portion of the evaluation process to determine who will be on the roster and what their role will be when the Lions travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts in Week 1.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers