August 30, 2010 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Playmakers Stafford, Best give Lions' O-line big boost

Lions running back Jahvid Best, left, ran 51 yards on the first play from scrimmage Saturday. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)

Detroit

It was only one play. But when you think about it, that's exactly the point.

That one play is what has been missing from the Lions' offense for far too long.

So, yes, from center Dominic Raiola's vantage point, that one play -- Saturday night, it was a 51-yard run by Jahvid Best on the first play from scrimmage -- means a lot.

"I didn't even see the play, how he got through the line," Raiola said in the postgame locker room after a 35-27 win over the Cleveland Browns. "But I heard he made one cut and he was off to the races."

And before anyone says, "Oh, here they go again," let's all say it together. It's only the exhibition season.

Raiola knows that as well as anyone -- this is his 10th NFL season, after all. But when he looks in his rearview mirror these days and sees the Best backfield tandem he's ever seen in Detroit, he can't help but be encouraged about what it means for the Lions' annually-maligned offensive line.

"For us, we want to fly under the radar," Raiola said. "Just hold up our end of the bargain and do our job: Keep 9 clean, give 44 a crease, and things can happen."

Things like that first play Saturday night, a simple outside zone toss that Best -- the dynamic speed back whose YouTube highlight video went viral in Allen Park during last winter's draft prep -- turned into a field-tilting explosive run.

In last season's 2-14 finish, the Lions ranked second in the NFL in runs of 4-plus yards, a sign that maybe the offensive line was doing something right. But Detroit's backs managed only three runs of 20 yards or more, and only one of 40-plus yards -- both NFC worsts. (By comparison, the league-leading Tennessee Titans had 24 and eight.)

Don't be surprised if Best doubles those totals by mid-October. In just six offensive series this preseason, he has 15 carries for 129 yards -- including three runs of 15-plus yards -- and four catches for 49 yards.

Couple that with Stafford's August line -- 34-of-46 for 332 yards and three touchdowns with one interception -- and you start to understand why Raiola can't wait for the regular-season opener at Chicago.

"We don't want to look too far ahead," he said. "But that's when we're gonna find out what the 2010 Lions are about."

That's a 73.9 percent completion rate and a 106.4 passer rating for Stafford so far, by the way. That's also largely irrelevant, since these stats during the exhibition season mean only slightly more than the records.

But here's one that's not.

"I think I've hit the ground three times in three games," Stafford said Saturday.

Trust me, after the punishment he took as a rookie, he's keeping track. And Stafford's right: You can count on one hand the number of times he has had to pick himself up off the turf.

Sure, there was no Shaun Rogers on the field Saturday, and no Elvis Dumervil the week before in Denver. (And there will be a Julius Peppers in a couple weeks at Soldier Field.)

But the first-team offensive line has played a dozen series -- all but one with Stafford under center -- and they've allowed just one sack in 51 pass plays. (That sack actually came from the likely backup at right tackle, Jon Jansen, against the Broncos.)

"They've done a great job of protection," Stafford said. "And we've had some success running the football. I'm pleased with those guys. The second year in the system is going to help everybody out."

No one more than those guys up front, however. The Lions finally might have found their left guard in Rob Sims, who was acquired from Seattle in April. The healthy return of right guard Stephen Peterman means more than most fans think. And the competition at right tackle appears to have gotten the attention of starter Gosder Cherilus, though it was his late holding penalty that negated a scrambling, 50-yard completion from Stafford to Nate Burleson against the Browns.

But the reality is the Lions don't need them to play like All-Pros. They simply need them to play largely error-free football. If they can, as Raiola says, good things can happen, with a quick-trigger quarterback in full command of an offense that finally has the talent to match his own.

"When you start putting some weapons around them, you protect the offensive line," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan explained. "When Matt has a guy getting open quick at the line of scrimmage, he's protecting the offensive line. Because he can get rid of the football -- he's not having to wait on a guy. It all goes hand in hand.

"The offensive line takes the brunt of all that. But our offensive line is gonna have a great year if our skill has a great year."

Lions vs. Bills

What: Fourth and final exhibition game

When: Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Ford Field

TV/radio: WWJ / 97.1 FM

Records: Both teams 2-1.

Season opener: Sept. 12 at Chicago, 1 p.m. (Fox)

john.niyo@detnews.com">john.niyo@detnews.com

john.niyo@detnews.com">john.niyo@detnews.com

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