Lions risers, fallers in preseason win over Giants: Big night for Julian Okwara

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DETROIT — Joint practices are for the starters. The ensuing preseason game is for everyone else.

That’s how most teams view these settings — the Detroit Lions and New York Giants included. Friday night’s contest at Ford Field didn’t feature many of the projected starters, but the two teams were able to get some good work in regardless. For the Lions, there were rookies who showed up, vets who left their mark and the end result the team wanted: a 21-16 victory to kick off the preseason.

“Obviously, it always feels good to win,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “We just wanted them to cut it loose and play, kept the plan simple. They knew what we were facing ’cause we had faced (the Giants) for two days now, and I felt like those young guys came out. I didn’t feel like it was too big for them. They made plays and then the vets that were out there for us, I thought did a good job too. So, look, it always feels good to win. We got a lot to clean up, but that’s a good first step.”

A lot to clean up, yes. But a lot with which to work. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the risers and fallers from Friday’s game.

Risers

DB Brian Branch

Branch’s first taste of NFL action saw him shoot out of a cannon to blow up a flip pass to Cole Beasley. It’s worth a re-watch.

This is par for the course for Branch these days. He makes play after play in practice to a point where the Lions didn’t hesitate to give him first-team reps at nickel, forcing C.J. Gardner-Johnson to safety and Tracy Walker to the second team. Branch might’ve run a 4.58 40 at the combine, but his football speed shows up when the pads are on. His natural instincts allow him to react fast and play fast. At this level, that’s more important. Good start for the rookie.

DL John Cominsky

It’s hard to call Cominsky a riser, because we know he’s a valuable member of this defensive line. But, boy, did he have himself a day.

That Branch play that ignited the Ford Field crowd? You can thank Cominsky, who knocked Beasley off his route, pressured Tommy DeVito into a flip toss and allowed Branch time to close on the play. He does the dirty work for others — whether it’s plays like this, hustling downfield to cover for someone else’s mistake or stunting to help a teammate get a sack. Cominsky is as selfless as it gets out there, but he also got his own with a tackle for a loss Friday. He looks ready to roll.

WR/PR Maurice Alexander

When you return a punt 95 yards for a touchdown, you make the risers list. Those are the rules.

But seriously, the Lions might have something with Alexander. He’s really impressed as a returner, both in practice and in the preseason the last two years. The problem? They already have an All-Pro punt returner in Kalif Raymond. If the Lions determine Alexander isn’t a fit for the 53-man roster, they’ll run the risk of losing him to a team in need of wide receiver depth and a returner. These are decisions good teams face.

The first-round picks

It was a light day at the office, but Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell showed glimpses of why the Lions drafted them where they did.

Gibbs got the start at running back and received a good chunk of snaps, perhaps more than you’d expect for a player as important as he is to the offense. The numbers don’t suggest much — 37 yards on seven touches — but Gibbs showed off his versatility as a pass catcher with an 18-yard reception and had a nice 8-yard run between the tackles. Considering he spent his night running behind Detroit’s second-team offensive line, it was a solid debut.

Campbell didn’t get the start, which might’ve been a move out of respect for Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez, but he showed up when he got reps. On a drive in the second quarter, Campbell was all over the place. He was step-for-step in coverage against Giants RB Eric Gray, showing good lateral movement in the process. Shortly thereafter, he was involved in a pair of stops on third and fourth down, helping Detroit’s defense off the field. He was moving well and calling out the defense, too.

“I feel like the joint practices were good,” Jack Campbell said. “Good to just kinda dip your toes in the water, get ready to roll, but I’m glad that I got the first official game under my belt. Now I’m focused on just proving it week-in and week-out and excited to see what this defense is going to look like.”

TE James Mitchell

It’s easy to forget him sometimes, given all the buzz surrounding rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, but Mitchell is a talented, young tight end who can help this team. He received plenty of snaps Friday evening and looked good in his role. He caught a pass on a play-action rollout from Nate Sudfeld, scampering upfield for a gain of 32 yards. He finished with three receptions on three targets for 53 yards before his day was over. Some good reps from Mitchell.

Edge Julian Okwara

Potentially the odd man out of a stacked edge room, Okwara left his mark in the preseason opener. He finished with three sacks, the type of effort that earns you a roster spot. Granted, he was facing third-stringers by the end, but performances like this are a win-win for the Lions nonetheless. If Okwara keeps this up, he’s either going to play his way onto Detroit’s 53-man roster or net the Lions a late-round draft pick for a team looking for pass-rush depth before the season.

Either way, what a night for him.

Best of the rest: There are simply too many players to highlight, but wide receivers Antoine Green (three receptions for 36 yards and a long of 24) and Chase Cota (four receptions for 60 yards) are worth mentioning. As are Romeo Okwara (one sack) and James Houston (multiple pressures).

Fallers

The Nate Sudfeld-Jameson Williams connection

One duo everyone was going to keep an eye on was Sudfeld and Williams. Jared Goff did not play, meaning Sudfeld would handle the bulk of the workload. And with Williams’ looming six-game suspension, these preseason games are the best setting to get him reps. So, then, how did the two perform?

The first offensive play of the game featured Sudfeld and Williams looking for one another. It ended with a lofted ball from Sudfeld under pressure, falling into the hands of Giants defensive back Jason Pinnock for an interception — a play Dan Campbell described as a miscommunication. Later on, the two could not connect on a deep ball dropped by Williams. In the second quarter, Sudfeld fired a bullet high into traffic for Williams that was, again, picked off by the Giants. And there was almost a third interception in the third quarter.

Aside from a nice hookup on a successful 2-point conversion, it was a day to forget for the pair. Sudfeld was 2-of-7 for 18 yards and two interceptions when targeting Williams.

This, of course, was not the desired outcome. Teddy Bridgewater was in the building Friday evening and he’s expected to practice next week. If Sudfeld continues to struggle, as he has in practice and again Friday night, the Lions might determine his roster spot is best served elsewhere. For Williams, meanwhile, it was nice to see him play the majority of snaps and receive the targets he did. But his drop looms large. It’s been a bit of an issue for him, one the Lions are working on.

GO DEEPER

One day following Jameson Williams’ every move at Lions training camp

But Dan Campbell wasn’t discouraged. He said he wasn’t looking for Williams to get a predetermined stat line. He wanted his young receiver to get reps, and that’s what happened. Expect it to continue.

“It’s all about getting better and growth,” Campbell said. “This was step one. He needed this. He didn’t have a preseason last year. He really didn’t. I kinda felt like he was starting from square one, so it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll get him in against Jacksonville (next week) and we’re gonna play him again and get him better.”

DB Will Harris

Harris is back with the Lions in a reserve role, and based on the added depth in the secondary, he’s expected to play fewer snaps than last year. On this team, he’s likely CB4 or CB5, with enough versatility to play nickel should Gardner-Johnson or Branch go down. However, he got the first crack at things Friday night and did not make the most of his snaps. Harris was flagged for two penalties and allowed a couple of completions for solid gains before his day was over. Not his best outing.

OL Matt Nelson

The Lions love Nelson in their jumbo package, using him as an extra blocker in red-zone and goal-line situations. However, it’s hard to trust him much as a pure tackle. That Sudfeld interception on the very first play of the game? That was a product of instant pressure allowed by Nelson, who was beaten off the edge within a matter of seconds.

The Lions are still looking for players from their second-team offensive line to emerge and separate from the pack. Nelson, who’s made the 53-man roster each of the last two seasons, might not be as safe as he’s been over the years.

(Photo of Julian Okwara, left, and Levi Onwuzurike: Mike Mulholland / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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