Riley Reiff has had a lot to learn in his rookie season. He got a lesson against 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith this season in San Francisco. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Allen Park -- Riley Reiff is a man of few words, much like the one he's replacing in the Lions lineup.
But come Thursday, the less you hear about him, the better it'll be for him — and his team — as they host the Texans at Ford Field for the 73rd annual Thanksgiving Day game.
Reiff, a rookie first-round pick, is expected to make his first start at left tackle, protecting Matthew Stafford's blind side with Jeff Backus sidelined for the first time in his 12-year pro career.
Backus suffered a hamstring injury last weekend on the first touchdown drive midway through the second quarter a 24-20 loss to the Packers. He returned the next series, but lasted four plays before limping off for good and hasn't practiced this week. That puts his Ironman streak of 187 consecutive NFL starts, including last year's playoff game, in serious jeopardy.
It also puts Reiff in a very uncomfortable spot.
The first came Tuesday as he was surrounded by a pack of reporters and a few TV cameras after practice. Quietly, Reiff kept answering different questions the same way.
"You have to be ready," Reiff said. "Something happens, you've got to be ready to step up."
A half-dozen times, he came back to that same position, the way a good offensive lineman should, I suppose: "You gotta be ready."
Is he? We'll find out in a hurry, because the Texans, with a league-best 9-1 record and one of the best defenses, are coming to town. And they're bringing defensive end J.J. Watt, one of Reiff's former Big Ten rivals, who ranks third in the NFL with 111/2 sacks.
Blitz likely in order
Reiff won't necessarily be matched up against Watt, who moves inside and out in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defensive front, lining up on the right side about a quarter of the snaps. But when he is, Reiff knows he'll have his hands full, fending off Watt's bull rush while trying not to fall for the arm-over move he has added to his repertoire. And even when he's not, the Texans, who have blitzed on more than 40 percent of passing plays, undoubtedly will be bringing the heat.
Reiff saw a steady diet of blitzes when called into full-time duty against the Packers. And the inexperience showed, as he committed two holding penalties and allowed three quarterback hurries. Still, he settled down and ended up playing 56 of 71 snaps. That's more than double the playing time he'd been getting as the sixth offensive lineman in a package that had been expanding each game after the bye.
"Anytime you get on the field, you're gaining a little bit more knowledge, a little bit more experience," said Reiff, selected 23rd overall out of Iowa, where he played three seasons before entering the draft after his All-Big Ten junior year. "I'm just gonna go out there and do what I'm here to do, and do it at a high level."
Tuesday, he was getting in some extra work after practice with offensive line assistant Jeremiah Washburn and veteran guard Dylan Gandy. All week, he has been getting encouragement from his teammates, including Backus.
"The guys in the O-line room, we're all together," Reiff said. "It's one unit. We stick together, help each other out. Jeff's a great guy, and I listen to anything he says. He's a smart player, he's been a really good player, and I try to take as much from him as possible."
Broyles needed, too
Reiff, the South Dakota native whose parents and younger brother have been in town since last weekend, isn't the only rookie getting thrown into the fire this week. Second-round pick Ryan Broyles also should get his first start, replacing the deactivated Titus Young opposite Calvin Johnson.
Ironically, this is exactly the scenario Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz were talking about in defense of April's top two picks and their best-player-available strategy. The fans clamored for defense, but the Lions went for offense, and, in Broyles' case, a No. 4 receiver coming off a torn ACL last November.
"What looks like a need one year, all the sudden isn't," Schwartz said that night. "And what looks like you're set at a position, all the sudden becomes a need."
All of a sudden, the Lions need both these rookies to play like they belong, and particularly Reiff, who has held his own in brief 1-on-1 matchups with the likes of Julius Peppers and Jason Babin this season.
"I'm not worried about Riley," center Dominic Raiola said. "He's not a pup anymore. I think he'd be the first to say he can handle it. And I believe in him. I've seen him work his butt off and progress. And the only way he's gonna get better is to go in there and play more.
"I expect him to be a professional and step right in there this week. We're not gonna make any excuses, no explanations. He's the next guy in and we expect the next guy in to step up and do their job."