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WP: Mark Maske: Lions Look to Rookies for Immediate Help


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Lions Look to Rookies for Immediate Help

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer


BALTIMORE -- The Detroit Lions don't win on the road in the regular season. They don't win on the road in preseason. Anyone notice a pattern here?

The Lions' 17-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night was their seventh straight on the road in preseason play, dating to 2001. They have lost an NFL-record 24 straight road games in the regular season, going back to their last road triumph in 2000.

What's different this year is that this is a season of high hopes for the downtrodden franchise, with the additions of guard Damien Woody and cornerback Fernando Bryant in free agency and the selections of wide receiver Roy Williams and tailback Kevin Jones in the first round of the draft. And the talk in the Lions' locker room as they made a rapid exit from M&T Bank Stadium late Saturday night was almost all positive, pointing to the fact that the starters exited after a first half in which Detroit led, 6-3.

"There were a lot of things I was pleased with," Coach Steve Mariucci said. "When we left the locker room, I said, 'This is going to be a tale of two halves.' I said, 'Let's fight this team for a half. They're a playoff team. Let's slug it out with them and see how we stack up against this team.' They're a good running football team. We all know that, and good on defense. And we came out of it with [a] 6-3 [lead] at halftime. We scored on our opening drive for the third time in a row. We held them to 28 yards rushing. . . . We didn't get a touchdown, but we did play really good defense. . . . I was encouraged."

Said quarterback Joey Harrington: "I think it was a great test for us. Ed Reed, Gary Baxter, Ray Lewis -- that's a pretty good defense. And to go out and beat them in the first half, that gives us a definite shot of confidence. We moved the ball down the field right away like we have every week, then we hit a little slump. And this is why I wanted to play for more than a series or two because we got out of the funk. We had a couple short drives, and then took the ball the length of the field again. That was great. I was thrilled about that."

The Detroit offense didn't exactly blow the Baltimore defense off the field in the first half, with 139 total yards and a pair of Jason Hanson field goals. But there were, indeed, encouraging signs as the Lions prepare for a season in which they hope all of their young talent on offense meshes and they can be one of the league's surprise teams.

Williams, the seventh overall choice in the draft out of Texas, and Jones, the 30th overall selection out of Virginia Tech, join an offense that already included Harrington, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, and wide receiver Charles Rogers, the second overall choice in last year's draft. It takes a lot of losing to get draft picks that high, but the Lions at last could be poised to cash in.

Both of the club's prized rookies made contributions Saturday. Williams didn't have a reception in the Lions' first two preseason games -- including a 17-10 loss at Cleveland nine days ago -- but had three catches for 40 yards Saturday. He even maneuvered around Lewis, the Ravens' all-pro middle linebacker, on the first one.

"I was pleased, real pleased, his first catch especially," Harrington said. "He caught a ball right in the middle of the field and turned around and Ray Lewis, the best defender in the game, is bearing down on him, and he made him miss. That was a good thing to see right off the bat. And then he came back and made some great plays. He got up the field. That was the biggest thing. He didn't do a lot of side to side. He made a guy miss and he'd get up the field."

Lewis offered some acknowledgement to Williams later after a run by Jones, Williams said, adding that he now can tell his kids, his grandkids and anyone else who will listen someday that he eluded Lewis on his first NFL catch, even if it was only preseason play.

"He's the man," Williams said. "I'm not going to take anything away from him, but he acknowledged that I'm a player. He gave me a little wink. . . . They tackled Kevin one time. I was just looking at him and he was looking at me, and he gave me the wink. And I sure do appreciate it."

Said Mariucci: "He was strong after the catch. I thought he ran impressively and fearlessly. He caught the ball inside and he was going to run inside. It was everything that we kind of hoped for."

Jones ran for 36 yards on seven first-half carries and was more combative in his interaction with Lewis, exchanging harsh words after his second carry.

"It was just good, friendly competition," Jones said. "I'd never met him before. But you feel like you've met him from watching TV all the time. He's on every channel."

Mariucci wondered afterward what his rookie runner possibly could have been saying to the sport's top defender. "What was he saying -- 'Thank you for not hurting me, Mr. Lewis?' " Mariucci said.

Williams admired his fellow rookie's gall, saying: "Those guys, that's how they play defense. They try to rattle you. They try to get inside your head. I guess Kevin was like, 'You're not going to get inside my head.' He had some excellent runs."

The Lions were just happy to see what Jones could do after being plagued by hamstring and foot injuries throughout training camp. Mariucci said he wasn't certain Jones would play Saturday after hurting his foot Thursday in practice.

"I was concerned about his availability," Mariucci said. "But he played, and played okay."

Said Harrington: "I thought he did a tremendous job. We ran a toss toward our sideline and a guy came free, and he shook him in the backfield and got free for a pretty good chunk of yards. Those are the kinds of things we need to see from our running backs."

The Lions' offense has scored on its first drive in each of the three exhibition games, getting two touchdowns and a field goal. Harrington said he was most pleased that, after going three plays and out on their second, third and fourth possessions, the Lions regrouped to drive 63 yards for a second-quarter field goal.

"Rebounding off the short drives was the most important thing for me to see because we're not going to have a chance to get into the flow [in Thursday's preseason finale at home against Buffalo]," said Harrington. "We had short success the first two weeks -- a couple drives, a couple touchdowns. We did some good things in short spurts. Now we were able to put it together for a half and show that we could ride the little momentum swings, and that's good to see."

Things deteriorated for the Lions after the starters exited Saturday. The second-string defense surrendered an 84-yard touchdown run by Ravens reserve tailback Chester Taylor on the first snap of the third quarter, and Taylor added a 10-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter after Lions quarterback Mike McMahon threw an interception for the final of Detroit's three second-half turnovers. The Lions also committed 12 penalties on the flag-filled night, one more than the Ravens.

"The thing that sticks out in my mind was the three turnovers," Mariucci said. "That's unacceptable. . . . That's what I'm not pleased about. The other thing was too many penalties. I don't know how many there were, but it looked like it was Flag Day. In fact, there were four flags on the field at one time and I asked the official here, 'Why didn't you throw one? Everybody else did.' It was a little sloppy, I thought, even for preseason. You can't win a game with too many penalties and three turnovers. It's just not going to happen, especially against a good football team."

Pennington Deal Near?

Agents Tom Condon and Ken Kremer continue to negotiate with the New York Jets on a contract extension for quarterback Chad Pennington, who's entering the final season of his current deal and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. Pennington's camp has set Wednesday as the deadline for an agreement or it will cut off negotiations, it maintains, until after the season. Any extension for Pennington probably would include about $20 million in bonus money.

"A deal is certainly there to be made," one person familiar with the talks said over the weekend, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are at a sensitive stage. "That doesn't necessarily mean it will be made. But it very well could be.'' . . . Rookie safety Bob Sanders is scheduled to practice with the Indianapolis Colts today after finally reaching a contract agreement Friday. The second-round selection was the final draft choice league-wide to sign with his team. He has seven practices and one exhibition game to get ready for the season. . . .

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher practiced with the Chicago Bears on Sunday. It was Urlacher's first practice since he pulled a hamstring on July 28, the first day of training camp. . . .

The Denver Broncos' depth at tailback took a hit with the loss of Mike Anderson, who suffered a severe groin pull during Friday's win over Houston. Anderson is scheduled to be examined by a specialist today and could be sidelined for at least two months. The Broncos, though, still have rookie Tatum Bell and veteran Garrison Hearst to back up new starter Quentin Griffin. The Broncos also will be without defensive tackle Luther Elliss for a few weeks because of a torn pectoral muscle.

Bills In QB Market

The Bills may sign free agent quarterback Shane Matthews after losing backup Travis Brown to a knee injury in Saturday's loss to the Colts on the heels of rookie J.P. Losman breaking his leg in practice. Greg Zolman is Buffalo's only healthy quarterback behind veteran starter Drew Bledsoe. Brown is to be sidelined at least a month because of a torn medial collateral ligament. The list of current free agent quarterbacks also includes Chris Redman (who's coming off offseason shoulder surgery) and Rob Johnson, but the Bills appeared today to be leaning toward Matthews. Even if they sign Matthews, the Bills could have other options after teams make the league-mandated roster trims by Tuesday and Sunday. . . .

Buffalo safety Lawyer Milloy underwent surgery Sunday for the broken right forearm he suffered Saturday and had a plate inserted to speed the healing process. Milloy has never missed a game in eight NFL seasons and is vowing to return before the regular season. Bills cornerback Troy Vincent returned to Saturday's game after undergoing X-rays for a suspected jaw injury following an early collision with Milloy.

Collins Making Case

Oakland Raiders officials have insisted since signing quarterback Kerry Collins as a free agent that 2002 league most valuable player Rich Gannon would remain the club's starter. But Collins is making a convincing case in preseason play that he should take over, leading the offense to four touchdowns in eight possessions and appearing to be better-suited to lead Coach Norv Turner's down-the-field passing game. Turner told reporters following Saturday's win at Arizona: "The thing I'm going to say is I like the way both guys are playing.'' . . . The Philadelphia Eagles' injuries on defense have become a concern to Coach Andy Reid. End N.D. Kalu was lost for the season because of a torn knee ligament, and safety Brian Dawkins (bruised knee) and tackle Corey Simon (back and foot injuries) haven't played in the exhibition season. . . .

Jacksonville rookie place kicker Josh Scobee responded to the club's signing of veteran Steve Christie. Scobee kept Christie on the sideline during Friday's win over Green Bay with three field goals and some solid kickoffs. Scobee probably won the Jaguars' kicking job for the regular season after putting his status in jeopardy by missing three of four field goal tries in the first two preseason games, leading to the signing of Christie. . . .

San Diego Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer is leaving open the possibility of Philip Rivers beginning the season as the team's starting quarterback even after the prized rookie's shaky outing in his exhibition debut Friday against Seattle. But it's difficult to envision Schottenheimer going with Rivers after Rivers missed most of training camp in a contract dispute. . . .

The trickle-down effect of the Kansas City Chiefs losing wide receiver Marc Boerigter to a possible season-ending knee injury is that Dante Hall could be pressed into more playing time on offense, and Coach Dick Vermeil might consider using Eddie Kennison to spell Hall on some punt returns. . . .

Tyrone Wheatley appears to have won the Raiders' starting tailback job. . . . Oakland's starting defense has not yielded a touchdown in three preseason games. . . . Defensive end Grant Wistrom, Seattle's high-priced free-agent addition, practiced with the Seahawks on Sunday for the first time since training camp opened. The club took a cautious approach with Wistrom, who has plantar fasciitis in his right foot. . . . Seattle's decision to place Brock Huard on the injured reserve list because of a nerve problem in his back leaves Seneca Wallace as the Seahawks' No. 3 quarterback, behind Matt Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer. . . . This could be the day for franchise-player cornerbacks to report to their clubs, with Chris McAlister scheduled to join the Baltimore Ravens and the Raiders hopeful that Charles Woodson will arrive.

Jags Cut Douglas

The Jaguars today released defensive end Hugh Douglas, the once-feared pass rusher who signed with the club before last season as a free agent. Douglas, 33, had only 3 1/2 sacks last season and didn't look much better in the preseason this year. He joins fellow veteran end Tony Brackens, cut by Jacksonville last week, among the unemployed. The Jaguars save $3.3 million on this season's salary cap by releasing Douglas. . . .

The Packers got some good news when an MRI exam of tailback Ahman Green, who hurt his left knee during Friday's game against the Jaguars, showed no structural damage. Still, the bruised kneecap could keep Green out of this Friday's preseason finale at Tennessee. . . . Rookie Cody Pickett beat out Brandon Doman to be San Francisco's third quarterback behind Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. Doman was released by the 49ers Sunday.

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