O’HARA’S BURNING QUESTIONS: What is the biggest preseason plus?

Posted Aug 28, 2014

Mike O’Hara answers all of the burning questions from the Lions’ preseason – the good, bad and everything in between – that ended with Thursday night’s game with the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Burning questions from the Lions’ preseason – the good, bad and everything in between – that ended with Thursday night’s game with the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium:

Q. Bottom line: What stands out most for what the Lions have accomplished and where they stand as head to the regular season?

A. For one of the few times, they are coming out of the preseason with more than they had at the start, and that is reflected in a lot of areas.

Q. Net gain: What is the biggest plus overall, from the start of the offseason workouts through training camp and the four preseason games?

A. It’s something that hasn’t been seen on the sideline because of his stoic public demeanor, but Jim Caldwell has given the Lions more than the calming presence that most people consider one of his strongest qualities.

Away from the cameras, Caldwell rules with a strong hand. He doesn’t curse and yell or indulge in any of the theatrics that would draw attention to himself, but the players have found out that he has rules and standards that apply to everyone.

Caldwell doesn’t accept excuses for penalties or turnovers, and no one is exempt from being corrected.

Q. What was the biggest example of that in the preseason?

Nick FairleyDT Nick Fairley (Photo: Gavin Smith)

A. By far, the move that got the most attention was demoting Nick Fairley from starting at defensive tackle next to Ndamukong Suh to second string behind C.J. Mosley.

Other things Caldwell did in team meetings no doubt made an impact on the players, but demoting a starter and former first-round draft pick had to get someone’s attention.

The person who should have noticed most is Fairley, and it looks like he did. His play was improved a week ago against Jacksonville, and he was productive early against Buffalo. He started and stuffed a running play, and he helped cause a sack by chopping the legs out from under Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel.

Q. Caldwell’s method: What word describes it best?

A. I’d use one word: coaching.

Q. The roster: What’s the best thing about it heading into the regular season?

A. Health is No. 1. The Lions got through the preseason without an injury to any player who figured to be one of the 22 starters on offense and defense, and there is no one whose practice time is being managed because of a nagging injury or chronic condition.

That’s different than last year, when safety Louis Delmas dealt with a knee injury that kept him out most of the preseason and limited his practice time during the season.

Injuries are bound to happen in the regular season. They can’t be predicted. But not having anything major for the start of the season is a bonus. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should ask the St. Louis Rams how they feel about playing the season with starting quarterback Sam Bradford out for the year with a knee injury.

Q. Offense: What were the most encouraging signs, and what is the biggest question mark?

A. The good: Matthew Stafford is getting comfortable with the offense and spreading the ball around. Golden Tate showed that he can be a contributor opposite Calvin Johnson. The offensive line was solid. Reggie Bush’s 86-yard TD run against Jacksonville showed he still has life in his legs in his ninth season and the tight end position has versatility and depth.

Question mark: Until proven otherwise, a play-making third receiver still hasn’t shown up.

Q. Defense: Same question – most encouraging signs, and biggest question mark?

The biggest surprise of the preseason was the play of defensive end George Johnson. He may have found a home as a pass-rusher after bouncing around for three seasons. He’s been an effective speed-rusher, but he has to prove it in the regular season.

Linebacker DeAndre Levy played at a Pro Bowl level last year, and there has been no falloff.

Also up front, defensive end Devin Taylor looks like he can take a step forward from his rookie year. The same holds for cornerback Darius Slay.

Question mark: Can a combination of a better pass rush and play in the secondary handle the quarterbacks the Lions will face? In the NFC North alone, that means two games each against Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Jay Cutler of the Bears.

That’s a question that will begin to be answered on opening night against Eli Manning and the Giants.