ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Other than in the secondary, there’s really no more heated competition for a job with the Detroit Lions in the final week of the preseason than at punter.
In one (coffin) corner is Ryan Donahue, an undrafted free agent out of Iowa who is in his second year with the Lions. He averaged 42.7 yards on 49 punts in eight games last season with Detroit.
In other (coffin) corner is Ben Graham, a former Australian rules footballer turned NFL player. He’s in his eighth year in the league, and averaged 44.1 yards on 28 punts last season with the Lions.
May the best leg win.
It appears the duel is coming down to their performances this week in practice and in Thursday’s preseason finale against Buffalo at Ford Field. NFL teams must settle on their 53-man rosters for the opening game by Friday at 9 p.m.
“It’s crunch time,” Donahue said. “This is a huge game.”
Donahue appeared to have a slight edge going into last week, but his poor performance against Oakland might have opened up the door for Graham.
Donahue averaged 35.8 yards on four punts, having one downed on the Oakland 9-yard line. His worst effort was a 34-yarder that gave the Raiders the ball near midfield. He also failed to pin Oakland deep in its territory when he had another opportunity.
“Awful,” Donahue said. “It was awful. I hold myself to a higher standard than that.
“I let a couple balls get away from me. That’s not me. What I did on Saturday wasn’t characteristic of what I can do.”
Donahue and Graham couldn’t be much more different.
Donahue is 24 years old; Graham is 38. What’s more, their punting styles are a complete contrast.
“He’s got the end-over-end ball where he can put it on the sideline,” Donahue said. “It doesn’t have that much hang time. That’s his weapon. That’s what he goes to.
“Mine is hang time, give the guys a lot of time to get down the field. It’s kind of ‘ta-may-toe, ta-ma-toe’ sometimes.”
Graham averaged 37.5 yards on two punts last week, one of which forced the Raiders to start at their 14-yard line.
Donahue is averaging 39.7 yards per punt, with two inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, in the three preseason games.
Graham is averaging 41.6 yards with four inside the 20.
The two longest returns of the preseason allowed by the Lions have come on Graham punts.
In the opener, Cleveland returned one 45 yards on a coverage-teams breakdown to set up a touchdown.
The next week, at Baltimore, Graham failed to put the ball out of bounds as designed. The Ravens returned it 85 yards for a touchdown, only to have the score negated by a holding penalty.
Because of the returns, Graham’s net-punting average is 8.7 yards worse than Donahue.
“There’s always a few balls you’d like to have back, but overall I think I’ve been pretty good,” Graham said. “Not perfect, but not bad.”
As for whether his experience could work in his favor in this competition or whether the age difference might hurt him, Graham replied, “I think age, no, because my body’s in great shape. I haven’t lost any strength.
“My experience is there. I’ve been in many situations before, played in the Super Bowl. Whatever situation I get faced with, I’m ready for it. You can’t buy experience.”
Asked what he’s looking for from the duo this week, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said, “We’re going to need to see consistent punting. That’s something we haven’t gotten from either guy the first three games. “It’s a very important game for both of those guys.”
If they don’t produce, there might be one other option that’s emerged: The Lions could bring back Nick Harris, a 12-year NFL veteran who was with Detroit from 2003-10.
Harris, who averaged 42.7 yards last season with Jacksonville, was released Monday by Carolina.
Cornerback Kevin Barnes, acquired from the Washington Redskins for a conditional draft pick, practiced with the Lions Tuesday after passing his physical.
Four years ago, Barnes was playing in college for Maryland when he made a vicious hit on then-California running back Jahvid Best (WATCH VIDEO OF HIT).
Best was severely dazed, crawling around on the field before throwing up.
Now, Barnes and Best are teammates in the NFL, although Best is still recovering from two concussions suffered last season.
“I heard about it all the time,” Barnes said of his hit that became famous via You Tube. “I just kind of want it to die down a little bit right now.
“He’s my teammate. I don’t really think it’s appropriate to talk about it. It was college. I don’t want that to be the last memory of me.”