Wojo: Stafford harried as Lions’ O-line shaky in opener
Pittsburgh — Matthew Stafford threw the ball well, in the brief time he was allowed to do so. His receivers and tight ends caught the ball, for the most part. Oh, the Lions had their standard batch of preseason miscues, but they emerged relatively unscathed.
Of course the outcome doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, as the Lions opened with a 30-17 victory Friday night against the Steelers, who sat most of their stars. At the risk of being simplistic, I’ll outline what matters now and tomorrow and next week and next month: Can the Lions block?
Which brings us to Taylor Decker, the No. 1 pick from Ohio State, whose development will be the most-important development of this preseason. If you’re looking for snap judgments or hasty overreactions, that’s just silly. But that’s why we’re here! The initial returns on Decker have been decidedly hit and miss, although it’s worth noting, they almost always are for rookie left tackles.
The Lions moved the ball early against the Steelers with Stafford deftly converting third downs, including a tight toss to newcomer Marvin Jones, who toe-tapped the sideline for a 16-yard gain. Later, Stafford hit another newcomer, Anquan Boldin, over the middle for 30 yards.
The Lions went up-tempo and marched briskly on the first unit’s only possession, until — oomph, boom, ouch. Stafford converted a third-down scramble from Pittsburgh’s 17, but Decker was called for holding. On the next play, Decker officially was welcomed to the NFL brotherhood on a sweeping rush by James Harrison, who knocked the ball loose from Stafford and the Steelers recovered.
Offensive linemen prefer to be anonymous, but when you stand 6-7, 311 pounds and were drafted with the 16th pick of the first round, no such luck. This is where I’m legally required to reiterate the reality, that this whole blocking thing takes time, and one of Decker’s jobs is to brush off mistakes and brush up quickly.
“I think it’d bother anybody to have bad plays, and it definitely does bother me,” Decker said. “It’s something you just gotta get better at. You can’t let one bad play turn into 10 bad plays.”
This could happen to anyone facing Harrison, and it’s supposed to happen to young guys. So no one is judging Decker and the Lions’ revamped line on one game, or a few weeks of practice. But it’s vital to see progress, because if Decker can handle left tackle, then Riley Reiff is much better-suited for right tackle, and perhaps the line stabilizes.
Stafford, who was 4-for-6 for 58 yards, thought the protection was decent, and said of Decker, “I thought the young kid did a good job.”
Sometimes Decker does a very good job in drills, and sometimes looks lost. But he handles it all with low-key aplomb. Jim Caldwell plopped him in at left tackle from the first practice and hasn’t wavered.
“My initial impressions are that he looks like a young player that has talent,” Caldwell said. “He’s going to make some mistakes here and there. There is still no reason to put the ball on the ground though.”
The Lions under GM Bob Quinn are emphasizing the trenches, which is where every new regime should focus. The defensive line, with Ziggy Ansah and rising Devin Taylor (who had a sack Friday night) on the outside, and a revived Haloti Ngata in the middle, should be the strength. That might compensate for a thin linebacking corps and a questionable secondary.
But nothing affects the look and hope of a team as much as the offensive line, something the Lions have merely spent 50 years trying to figure out. They’re trying harder now, drafting Decker in the first round this year, taking Laken Tomlinson in the first round last year, taking Reiff in the first round four years ago.
They also have two former third-round picks — Larry Warford and Travis Swanson — in the middle, and selected two more linemen — Graham Glasgow (third round) and Joe Dahl (fifth) — this season. In his first draft, Quinn used 30 percent of his picks on offensive linemen, so you know what he saw.
It’s the same thing Caldwell saw, the same thing Stafford has seen, often right in his face. Stafford was sacked 89 times the past two seasons, but hey, at least the Lions also couldn’t run the ball, finishing last in the league. That’s a lethal combination, and while it certainly doesn’t absolve Stafford, it has to be fixed.
Everyone touts Stafford’s numbers down the stretch last season, rightly so, when the Lions went 6-2 under new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. His efficiency sky-rocketed for several reasons, none bigger than this — he wasn’t hit nearly as often.
Cooter simplified the blocking schemes, Warford got healthy and the Lions protected their quarterback much better. In the first half of last season, Stafford was hit 64 times. In the second half, 31 times.
Against the Steelers, he was hit hard on his first dropback and hit hard again as he lofted a beautiful pass to Jones. And of course he was clobbered by Harrison on the fumble, which helped create a few statistical oddities.
The Lions trailed 14-3 at one point, yet controlled play, outside of turnovers. Dan Orlovsky made a poor decision and Doran Grant picked him off for a 39-yard interception-return touchdown. By halftime, it was 14-13 and the Lions had huge edges in yards (222-55) and first downs (15-4). They were 8-for-12 on third-down conversions, while the Steelers were 0-for-5.
All of which means little, considering the Steelers didn’t play Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and others. The overall outcome is far, far less important than the individual outcomes, and during two joint practices between the Lions and Steelers here, Decker had his moments, good and bad.
“He did OK,” Caldwell said of Decker after one practice. “He’s got a ways to go yet, but he did all right.”
A ways to go, and based on Decker’s immense size and talent, and the Lions’ immense need, he’ll have to be much better than OK. I strongly suspect he will be, eventually. But the path from here to there can be a rocky one, and Decker is advised to block out the mistakes, and just keep blocking.