(ALLEN PARK) - Lions fans will get their clearest indication to date of what their team will look like on opening day when the Detroit Lions host the Cleveland Browns (7:30 pm Saturday, Ford Field, Detroit, MI) in the second annual Great Lakes Classic football game Saturday.
Steve Mariucci will likely play his starters for an entire half to get them ready for opening day against the Arizona Cardinals in two weeks. Detroit will attempt to replicate what their opening day offensive and defensive schemes will look like in the regular season, so this one bears watching.
New Cleveland starting quarterback Kelly Holcomb will test the Lions defensively. The seven-year veteran came on like gangbusters last season, throwing for 429 yards in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh after first round selection Tim Couch, a four-year starter and former No. 1 overall pick, had been ineffective.
Cleveland scored 31 points last week in a loss to Green Bay.
That coupled with an emotional outburst by Couch after Cleveland fans booed him when he suffered an injury against the Baltimore Ravens last season led to his demise and likely will lead to his eventual exodus from the franchise. Holcomb will now head into the season as the Browns starter. Cleveland's offense will provide exactly the kind of test Detroit needs to get ready for the opener.
After the Lions stuffed the running attack of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason (26-13 win), they suffered a setback when Bengals' rookie quarterback Carson Palmer went seven-for-seven in a second quarter stretch including two touchdown passes to break a close game open. Third stringer Shane Matthews even picked apart Detroit's secondary raising eyebrows about Detroit's pass defense. A fact that likely didn't go unnoticed by Detroit's opening day opponent Arizona (Ford Field, September 7, 1:00pm).
The Browns potent offensive attack should give Detroit's starters a stern test.
Against the Packers, Holcomb threw for two touchdowns (7-of-10 for 166 yards, rating 112.5) and starting running back William Green who, while rushing for just 15 yards on two carries, picked up 95 yards receiving on just two catches including an 82-yard screen pass play for a touchdown. The receiving tandem of Quincy Morgan and Kevin Johnson along with backup Dennis Northcutt combined for seven catches.
Meanwhile, Detroit hopes quarterback Joey Harrington can have his first good outing of the preseason.
Harrington has struggled to move the offense and has seldom thrown the ball down the field in the previous two outings. Last season, Harrington was most effective when he stretched opposing defenses by throwing the ball long, then dumping off underneath. While backup Mike McMahon appears to have outplayed Harrington to this point, there is no chance of a quarterback controversy. Harrington is firmly entrenched as the starter and Detroit will either sink or swim with the sophomore pro at the helm.
Harrington will have rookie draft pick Charles Rogers (2nd overall from Michigan State) starting at the glamour "Z" receiver position for this one likely opposite either Bill Schroeder, who has been very erratic this preseason, or third-year pro Scotty Anderson at the "X" position. Harrington will be facing a trio of starting second-year linebackers for the Browns; Kevin Bentley, Andra Davis and Ben Taylor, but it is the Cleveland front four of Courtney Brown (probable), Kennard Lang, Orpheus Roye, and underachieving former first round pick Gerard Warren that will be the biggest challenge to Detroit's offense.
Detroit's worry is that the group, which has been under fire for lack of production, will awaken for this one. Cleveland's defense has not been sharp despite the presence of the imposing four. Green Bay scored 38 points against the Browns.
Detroit would like to see some separation in the running backs and wide receiver corps to alleviate logjams at those two positions. While Luke Staley and Autry Denson have been the most productive backups behind James Stewart, head coach Steve Mariucci remains unimpressed. He would love to see someone have a breakout game and separate himself from the pack. Expect former Buffalo Bills running back Shawn Bryson to get a long look and if Avon Cobourne, who was impressive early, is healthy, he will get some reps as well.
Undrafted rookie tight end Casey Fitzsimmons has been the story of camp. He appears to have won a backup job behind Pro Bowl tight end Mikhael Ricks and could end up being the number two tight end ahead of John Owens. Matt Murphy appears now to be the odd man out but will get a shot at redeeming himself on Saturday.
Long shot rookies Scotty Vines and Travis Anglin (7th round pick from Memphis) will get their last chance to impress enough to make the practice squad. Rookie David Kircus (6th round pick from Grand Valley State) who has had an up-and-down camp so far needs to solidify his spot on the roster with some solid play. No player has been more talked about this preseason than the mercurial Bill Schroeder, who's inconsistent play has drawn the ire of Lions fans. Schroeder needs to allay the coaching staff's fears by having a drop-free, solid performance.
Scotty Anderson could solidify a spot on the roster with a performance like he had in the preseason opener (4 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown). Anderson could make Schroeder expendable.
Shawn Jefferson and Eddie Drummond also are fighting for a roster spot. However, with Drummond as the primary returner, Rogers and Az-Zahir Hakim assured of roster spots, Anderson, Jefferson, Kircus and Schroeder appear to be fighting for the last two spot on the receiving corps.
There is also the chance Detroit could scour the waiver wire next week for a dependable veteran who knows the West Coast Offense if they don't like any of the other options.
In the secondary, Dre' Bly has locked up one cornerback position, with Andre Goodman and Chris Cash at No. 2 and No. 3; what happens after that is anyone's guess. Danny Adams (7th round pick from Cincinnati) has not distinguished himself and with free agent signee Chris Watson out with a back injury, Detroit has little to no depth at the position. Undrafted rookie free agent Jameel Powell, who flashed early, seems to have run out of steam as has fellow rookie Gerald Dixon, who made a couple of special teams plays in the opener.
Detroit may have to put Watson on the PUP list and look for someone in next week's cuts to provide depth behind Bly, Cash and Goodman if no one jumps out in Saturday's contest.
If you don't normally watch preseason football, this one is worth catching to get a good look at the starters for the first half. The second half will be for strictly for hard-core fans looking to see the position battles play out into the fourth quarter.
Next week's preseason wrap up against Indianapolis will be nothing more than a glorified walk through to avoid any injuries prior to the Arizona game.