Allen Park — Here are five things to watch when the Detroit Lions host the New England Patriots in Friday’s preseason game at Ford Field.
The Lions’ starting defense has looked outstanding through two preseason games, but that’s not difficult to do when facing bottom-rung quarterbacks like Scott Tolzien and Christian Hackenberg. Friday’s game will be a more-telling barometer, with Tom Brady and the Patriots’ well-oiled passing game coming to town.
History suggests Brady is going to play significant snaps, and even with a vanilla game plan, the five-time Super Bowl winner is going to put Detroit’s defense to the test. If the starting unit can keep this New England offense in check, there will be more reason for optimism heading into the regular season.
SUSTAINED GROUND GAME
Running the ball continues to be an emphasis for the Lions as they seek a more-balanced offensive attack. Through two preseason games, the ground game has been up and down, with a steadier stream of quality carries from the backs, weighed down by an excessive number of negative plays and no gains that have been a prominent issue in recent years.
To this point, the Lions have been cautious with starter Ameer Abdullah, limiting him to five carries through two games. We probably shouldn’t expect significantly more work in this one, given it still doesn’t count, but it would be a positive sign if he, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington can routinely move the chains in the first half, behind the starting offensive line.
Both return jobs remain up for grabs, and with TJ Jones nursing a hamstring strain suffered in last week’s win over the Jets, the door is open for Jace Billingsley, Jamal Agnew or Keshawn Martin to step through and snag the brass ring.
Of the three, Agnew’s roster spot is the closest to being secure. Martin is playing from way behind, given the depth the team has at wide receiver, but the former Michigan State standout is making a strong case for an increased opportunity, especially with a 43-yard kickoff and 22-yard punt return in the second half against the Jets.
LOOKING FOR A FOURTH
The defensive tackle rotation appears to be rounding out nicely for the Lions with the veteran backup tandem of Akeem Spence and Jordan Hill flashing the ability to disrupt the pocket behind the starting duo of A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata.
But what about defensive end?
With Kerry Hyder out for the year and Ziggy Ansah still on the PUP list, Detroit has looked to Anthony Zettel to step up, and thus far, the second-year product out of Penn State has answered the bell. He’s going to be a big part of the rotation, along with Cornelius Washington and the eventually returning Ansah. The team is still waiting for a fourth option to emerge.
In the preseason opener in Indianapolis, the three rookies battling for a role — Alex Barrett, Jeremiah Valoaga and Pat O’Connor — each recorded a sack. But the trio had much quieter outings against the Jets. They’ll all play extended snaps in the second half and we’ll wait and see if one can rise from the pack.
TEST FOR TEEZ
Rookie cornerback Teez Tabor has looked far more comfortable in game settings than he has on the practice field. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Lions squeeze him into a few plays, or even a series, with the first-team defense, just to get the young defensive back more battle-tested heading into his first regular season.
But even if Tabor doesn’t take the field until the second half, he will face the best competition he’s seen this preseason, with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Through two preseason games, the Patriots backup quarterback is completing 72.5 percent of his passes.