Lions reserves are no match for Steelers starters in preseason loss

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh — While the Detroit Lions opted to rest many of the team's starters for Saturday's preseason game at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers did not. Detroit's backups proved no match as the Steelers built a 20-point lead at the half and held on for a 26-20 victory at Heinz Field. 

"Obviously, that was a tale of two halves," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "That was not good in the first half. We did about everything you can do to get down 20 to nothing. I was proud of the group that was in there in the second half. I thought they did a good job. I was proud of them and the way they fought back."

On offense, the Lions were without their starting quarterback, top two running backs, Pro Bowl tight end and center, left tackle and presumptive No. 1 receiver. So maybe it should come as no surprise that backup quarterback Tim Boyle failed to lead the unit across midfield with five possessions. 

Detroit Lions running back Jermar Jefferson (28) runs past Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds (34) in the first half.

Boyle, who didn't help matters with some errant throws, completed fewer than 50% of his passes for 44 yards, before giving way to David Blough midway through the third quarter. 

"Yeah, it's frustrating, but as a quarterback, you kinda have to keep the even-keeled mindset of kind of getting the guys going again," Boyle said. "We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times today. Too many drive killers, unfortunately."

Defensively, the Lions opted to rest nearly all of their front seven starters, with only rookie nose tackle Alim McNeil seeing playing time. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer, played three offensive series that netted 14 points, feasting on Detroit's second-team defenders. 

"The same thing on defense," Campbell said. "...Again, the opportunities were there for our young guys. We’ve got to make those plays."

After going three-and-out with their opening possession, the Steelers put together back-to-back touchdown series. They opened the game's scoring with a nine-play, 82-yard drive highlighted by a 43-yard completion to wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who blew past the coverage of cornerback Jeff Okudah. 

Roethlisberger capped the series by freezing safety Tracy Walker with a pump fake before firing a bullet to rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. 

And with their next possession, the Steelers needed just four plays to get back into the end zone. A 46-yard gain by running back Najee Harris, who ran around a tackle attempt by linebacker Jahlani Tavai, set up Freiermuth's second touchdown, an 8-yarder beating the man coverage of Jalen Reeves-Maybin. 

BOX SCORE: Steelers 26, Lions 20

As the Lions offense continued to bumble through the opening two quarters, the Steelers added a pair of short field goals to go into the locker room up, 20-0. 

Pittsburgh added a field goal in the third quarter before Detroit finally got on the board.

Following two long scrambles by Blough, and a fourth-down conversion by running back Godwin Igwebuike, a roughing the passer penalty against the Steelers pushed the Lions into the red zone. From there Igwebuike capped the series with a 7-yard touchdown run off right tackle. 

A failed 2-point conversion attempt left the Lions down, 23-6. 

The Steelers added a field goal early in the fourth quarter, pushing the lead back to 20, before Blough led the Lions on a second touchdown drive.

The third-year quarterback completed four passes to four receivers, finding undrafted rookie Javon McKinley in the back of the end zone to make it 26-13 with 3:11 remaining. 

"The game feels a little fast as a rookie," Blough said. "You're swimming a little bit, and then it starts slowing down for ya the more reps you get. He's just progressed every time. Coach Campbell was talking about it the other day. You can't ignore it when the ball finds a guy, you know? He made a play, and the ball found him, and there's something to be said for that. So he's doing an awesome job."

The Lions were able to make things interesting when receiver Geronimo Allison recovered an onside kick and Blough found Tom Kennedy across the middle on fourth down for a 31-yard gain down to the 3-yard line. Running back Craig Reynolds punched it in on the next play, leaving the Lions down, 26-20, with 1:56 on the clock. 

Instead of attempting another onside kick, the Lions opted to boot it deep, holding two timeouts. But a 19-yard completion to running back Jaylen Samuels helped eat up most the remaining clock to seal the victory. 

Here are some observations from the game.

► The Lions failed to cross midfield in the first half, undone not only by sloppy execution, but penalties. Tight end Darren Fells was the main culprit, drawing three flags. 

► The starting inside linebacking tandem of Tavai and Maybin struggled throughout the first half. 

Tavai showed a consistent lack of awareness in coverage, resulting in multiple open completions for the Steelers, while also blowing an open-field tackle opportunity that resulted in the 46-yard gain by Najee Harris. 

Reeves-Maybin was even more brutal in coverage, getting beat by tight ends three times, including the touchdown by Freiermuth.  Additionally, Reeves-Maybin badly whiffed on a sack despite coming through the line unblocked. 

"There were a couple of things that happened," Campbell said. "There were more than a couple. Some of those were mental that you wouldn’t expect, and them some of them were physical."

► Punter Jack Fox got plenty of work in the first half and looked excellent with his five boots, including a 70-yard blast that ricocheted out of bounds at the 3-yard line. 

► Undrafted rookie cornerback A.J. Parker continues to inch closer to a roster spot. He got the starting snaps at nickel where he had a pass breakup and tackle for loss early in the game. He added a second tackle behind the line of scrimmage and finished with a team-high eight tackles. 

► Rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes delivered another impactful performance in his second preseason game, recording five tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. The first pass breakup, at the goal line, should have been intercepted after he jumped into the passing lane.

Twitter: @justin_rogers