The Lions kicked off the preseason with a 21-16 win over the Giants Friday night in front of a fired-up crowd at Ford Field. At certain points, it felt and sounded like the outcome really mattered. If the fans are this fired up now, they might burn the building down next month.
Both teams rested most of their starters, as expected, but several key pieces saw the field for Detroit. Rookies Jahmyr Gibbs, Jack Campbell and Brian Branch looked like they belonged, and Sam LaPorta, despite failing to secure a first down catch on his only target, didn't do anything to change his status as the Lions' top tight end.
Branch laid a huge hit on veteran receiver Cole Beasley for a tackle for loss, Campbell was all over the field during one particularly impressive series for the defense that culminated in a fourth down stop and Gibbs flashed his playmaking ability on an 18-yard catch-and-run.
And then there was Jameson Williams, who got a game-high eight targets as Dan Campbell made good on his promise to "douse" the second-year wide receiver with reps, but only came down with three catches -- one of which did go for a two-point conversion. That was Williams' best play of the night, a smooth grab on a tightly-covered corner route.
On the downside, he dropped a deep ball that hit him in the hands and saw two of his other targets from Nate Sudfeld turn into picks. Sudfeld didn't do Williams many favors, but a better showing by the former No. 12 pick would have eased some of the concerns about how quickly he'll get up to speed this season after his six-game suspension.
"He’s got growth to do, man, like a lot of young guys, particularly guys that haven’t been through camp," said Campbell. "I mean, this is his first legit camp and look, he’s got a long way to go, but he’s taken a step in the right direction and I thought today was really positive for him.”
Williams wasn't a 'loser' Friday night, because he'll benefit from all the reps he banked. And there will be more to come next week against the Jaguars. But it was far from a polished performance for a player in the spotlight. Now, onto the winners.
Julian Okwara, DE
Boy did he need this. A third-round pick in 2020, Okwara was probably on the wrong side of the roster bubble entering Friday. He hasn't made much noise in training camp and Dan Campbell called on him last week to play with more consistency: "It's really always been that way for him, which we’ve talked about with him as well. He’s a flash player, man. He does something really impressive and then it just kind of reverts back at times. He doesn’t use what he’s been taught."
Okwara was a menace in the second half Friday night, notching three sacks and then a quarterback pressure that forced a game-ending interception. He was fast and bendy off the edge. And he was relentless through the final play, which will stand out to Campbell and Aaron Glenn. A performance like this is how Okwara will stick around.
"He’s another guy that really flashed today," Campbell said. "He did a lot of things. You could feel his speed off the edge, he was able to pressure the quarterback, he was hustling out there, and set an edge a couple of times in the run game. Certainly, he showed up.”
Chase Cota, WR
For all the focus on Dylan Drummond entering this one, it was fellow rookie Chase Cota who made the biggest jump at wide receiver. At the very least, the undrafted Oregon product has earned himself a bigger opportunity for the rest of camp. Cota didn't just catch four passes for 60 yards, both game highs. He caught the eye of his coach.
"He’s kind of the quiet sleeper," said Campbell. "He’s done some things that, every day it’s positive, but it’s under the radar. It’s more like the guy doesn’t mess things up and then today he shows up and makes these plays that really catch your eye. When you get a guy who’s where he’s supposed to be, he’s accountable, he can really play all the positions and now he’s making these plays, he’s starting to produce, it’s hard not to see it, right?
"The lights are on and all of a sudden this guy is making some serious plays, so that makes me want to give him more reps. Let’s bump him up a little bit, better group, better competition, and see where he can go.”
Right now, the 6'4 Cota is going nowhere but up.
Maurice Alexander, KR/PR
The Lions need a new kick returner in the wake of Justin Jackson's sudden retirement. Maurice Alexander, come on down. While Alexander didn't do anything special on kick-offs Friday night -- three returns for 33 yards -- he delivered the play of the game with a 95-yard punt return touchdown in the third quarter. It wasn't just well-blocked. Alexander had to make a few men miss and keep his feet as he weaved through contact. Once he did, it was off to the races.
"That was an outstanding return," said Campbell. "That was a long kick and he fielded it, got going on it, I thought we blocked it well and then really the rest was up to him. Broke a couple tackles there and kept going and then we got some blocks downfield. Mo did a good job there. That was electric and that got our guys going.”
Alexander, 26, latched on with the Lions last season after a stint in the USFL and played most of his snaps on special teams. He was the team's No. 2 kick returner after Jackson, and now he's got a chance to be the No. 1. He's also stood out in camp as a receiver.