Three storylines to follow in Lions-Jaguars

Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah could take his first snaps this year against the Jaguars Friday night.

Tim Fuller

Calvin Johnson will make probably his only appearance of the preseason. Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah also could take his first snaps this year. And there’s Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio, who will be in the spotlight, rotating kick attempts to try to determine who deserves to be the starter.

It’s all part of the intrigue Friday night at Ford Field when the Detroit Lions take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in the most important and revealing game of the preseason.

Here are three additional storylines to follow:

— Much of the focus will be on the starters this week during their "dress rehearsal" for the regular-season opener. They’re expected to play into the third quarter.

But some of the late-game snaps also will be very meaningful for players trying to win one of the final spots on the 53-man roster.

Cuts are coming soon. For some, this could be the final chance to prove themselves in this camp. NFL teams must trim their rosters from 90 to 75 by next Tuesday. The Lions’ final preseason game is two days later. Two more days after that — August 30 — teams have to get down to the 53-man limit for the regular season.

Three training camp surprises — running back George Winn, safety Jerome Couplin and receiver Andrew Peacock — have made a strong impression in both practices and games, but will there be a roster spot available for any of them?

Winn, undrafted last year coming out of the University of Cincinnati, not only has rushed for 48 yards and one touchdown in 14 attempts in the first two preseason games, but he also has had an impact on special teams with two tackles. To have any chance of making the team as a No. 4 running back, Winn needs to produce on special teams.

"He is tough," coach Jim Caldwell said. "Plays hard, hungry. We put him in some situations on special teams so we could see how he would function within that realm. He performed well. Now, one game does not do it. Consistency is the key. That’s the value of this game coming up."

Couplin, an undrafted rookie from William & Mary, is currently listed as the No. 3 strong safety behind James Ihedigbo and DeJon Gomes. How fast Gomes can recover from a neck injury likely will play a role in the decision on Couplin.

"In shorts (during offseason practices), he didn’t stand out quite like he does now in pads," Caldwell said. "He’ll strike you. He’s got good balance. You can tell he’s got a good football sense and he’s a competitor."

Meanwhile, Peacock, an undrafted rookie from Appalachian State, leads the team with six receptions (for 57 yards) in the preseason.

"Peacock’s really been exciting to watch," veteran receiver Golden Tate said. "Not the fastest, not the quickest, but he finds ways to be strong, he finds ways to get open. It’s fun to watch him."

If either Winn, Couplin or Peacock don’t make the top 53, they will be logical candidates for the Lions’ practice squad provided another team doesn’t claim them off waivers.

— Like all teams around the league, the Lions are still trying to adapt to the new rules that are stricter on the defense in terms of any contact — even incidental contact — past five yards from the line of scrimmage.

The Lions have been called for 22 penalties in two games (six of those were declined). Seven of the 22 calls were for defensive holding and three for defensive pass interference.

"It’s a little offensive friendly, but that’s the league we’re in," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "This is my 12th year and I’ve seen a lot of rule changes. It’s a little frustrating at first. You have to adjust.

"We want to be in the top-five least-penalized teams. On the back end, we can help with that with just playing around the rules, playing physical within the five yards and just using your athleticism after that to allow you to make plays."

The NFL has indicated that the penalties being called now will continue to be enforced in the regular season, but what often happens in these situations is the rule changes are greatly overemphasized early on to make a point and then the officials loosen up a little over time.

"Hopefully, that’s what’s going on," Mathis said.

For now, they’ll continue to try to adjust because the teams that do that the fastest will greatly benefit as long as the games are being called this way.

— Welcome back, Shoelace.

Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, in his second year with the Jaguars, is considerably healthier than the last time Wolverines’ fans saw him.

Robinson, a fifth-round draft pick last year, played only 52 snaps as a rookie, partly because he was still hampered by nerve damage in his right hand/arm, an injury he initially suffered during his senior year in college. He was reportedly limited to using only three fingers on that hand much of the time last season, which at least partly explains the three fumbles he lost despite getting only 24 touches (20 rushing attempts and four kick returns).

A year ago, the Jaguars didn’t give Robinson a defined position, instead designating him as their "offensive weapon." They wanted him to do a little of this and a little of that. It was cute. It got some attention.

But Robinson never settled into the vague role and is now considered strictly a running back.  That change — along with the better health — seems to have helped him.

In two preseason games, Robinson leads the Jaguars in rushing with 70 yards on 13 carries. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per attempt and has one touchdown, putting him in the mix to be part of a running-back-by-committee that also includes Toby Gerhart, Jordan Todman and Storm Johnson.