Wojo: Harried Stafford needs O-line to stand its ground

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — OK, we get it. Matthew Stafford is tough, able to play through aching ribs, bloodied elbows and the occasional numb arm. No one disputes it, so maybe it's time the Lions stop making him prove it.

Stafford almost assuredly will play Sunday against the Broncos, a game the Lions can't lose if they plan to contend for anything. Detroit can't start 0-3, with a trip to Seattle looming. You can bet the desperation will be palpable and Ford Field will be noisy. And you can bet Denver's dynamic pass rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, will make plans to meet in the backfield, on top of Stafford's chest.

This is about protection, and whether the Lions have enough to save their season against the Broncos' second-ranked defense. It's about an offensive line that's been shredded, and game plans that aren't compensating. Plenty still falls on Stafford, and he has to be sharper. But he's getting little help from the running game (ranked 31st) and no chance to do what he does best — throw deep.

Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi are limited by the deficiencies of the line, which isn't healthy, and Stafford is paying the price. He has been hit as often as any QB in the league, and according to Pro Football Focus, only Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck have been pressured more.

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This was the Lions unspoken fear, that the offense's progress could be undone by a rebuilt line, but there's no excuse for not finding a fix. Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle is working his way back from injury and should be ready to reclaim his job from struggling Cornelius Lucas. And first-round pick Laken Tomlinson could (should?) play a larger role as the season goes on.

What does it say about the Lions' young line that the most-effective blocker has been Manny Ramirez, 32, who came over from the Broncos in a draft-day trade?

"With all due respect, I could care less what other people say," Ramirez said Wednesday. "I'm more concerned about my quarterback, because as an offensive line we take a lot of pride in making sure he stays clean and healthy. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to do that. We respect (Stafford) even more for (absorbing the hits). A lot of people would have gone down and probably tapped out. But he has a lot of passion, and he'll do whatever it takes to stay out there."

Changes needed

Teammates fully expect Stafford to play with his sore ribs, and he went through the full practice Wednesday. He was in better spirits, while echoing Caldwell's new favorite line about anyone's playing status — "We'll see."

For all the criticism Stafford takes — some justified — he has never shied from the competitive fray. After missing 19 games his first two seasons with shoulder injuries, he has been a workhorse, starting every game since. That durability allows the Lions to carry one backup, Dan Orlovsky, a nice guy but not someone you want to see on the field anytime soon.

If Stafford were to go down, the Lions would finish 2-14, or thereabouts. So while the coaches and players watched him limp around in Minnesota, they had to do some introspection.

Tackles Lucas and Riley Reiff have played poorly. Right guard Larry Warford missed the first game with an ankle injury and shows rust. Center Travis Swanson is in his second season and the inexperience is noticeable.

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Stafford swears he has faith in his line, the only stance he can publicly take. But Lombardi must pinpoint a few things the Lions do well and hammer them. At the risk of being a complete simpleton, I'd suggest handing the ball to rookie Ameer Abdullah more often and trying, oh, maybe one deep throw to Calvin Johnson.

Stafford has attempted precisely three passes of 20 yards or longer and completed none, and that has to change. Instead of accepting whatever morsels an opposing defense concedes, the Lions must take more with force.

"I think there were some opportunities where we had Calvin (Johnson) one-on-one in some shots and I didn't look to him," Stafford said. "Something I can do better, no question about that."

Home at last

The offense's early woes have stirred skepticism that simmered after an 11-5 season. The defense has issues too, but it's missing its two best players — DeAndre Levy (hip injury) and Ndamukong Suh (Miami vacation). It will be challenged by Peyton Manning, but so far, the 2-0 Broncos haven't done much with their 39-year-old legend. It's Denver's defense, and its top-ranked secondary, that will try to wreck the home opener.

The Lions actually haven't played a regular-season game in Ford Field since last Dec. 14, and they're hoping the fans haven't lowered expectations or noise levels.

"I hope they still have some energy, I know we're 0-2, but I hope they come out and be super loud," safety Glover Quin said. "The louder they are, the harder it is for Peyton. When the energy is there, it's a great feeling."

You've surely heard the numbers. Of the past 66 teams to start 0-2, only six made the playoffs. To defy that trend, the Lions have to stop testing the boundaries of Stafford's toughness, and start showing more of their own.