Wojo: Lions are laying it all on the line

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Allen Park –  Look at the Lions from every angle — players, coaches, offense, defense, new cheerleaders, bright new end zone — and tell me what you see. If you’re like most people, you see a 7-9 team with slightly better scenery. Keep looking and maybe you see 8-8, or 6-10, nothing clearer than that.

The Lions spent the offseason seeking answers, and near as I can tell, they found two. They discovered linebacker DeAndre Levy is indeed healthy and could be a force again in the middle. And they discovered they have lots of good defensive linemen, although not lots of stars.

And frankly, that’s about it on important revelations. The season starts Sunday in Indianapolis with the Lions short on stars and deep in questions. Most NFL people see them in the lower end of the middle of the pack, with Vegas setting their over-under victory total at 7.5.

None of this is a surprise in the first season of a new regime under Bob Quinn, who has a full year to evaluate Jim Caldwell. And it’s hard to picture a major leap over last year’s 7-9, unless …

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Oh there are plenty of “unlesses,” and the biggest, by far, is the offensive line. Matthew Stafford and the offense are doomed unless a young line develops quickly in the Lions’ new up-tempo attack. There wasn’t much evidence of it in the exhibition season, as the first unit didn’t score a touchdown. But the Lions have invested heavily in the line, and there has to be a payoff eventually, possibly, theoretically, mercifully.

The Lions were last in the NFL in rushing last season, and are you positive Ameer Abdullah can handle the load, or rookie flash Dwayne Washington can have an impact? No, not yet.

Stafford was sacked 44 times last season, but became more effective as the Lions went 6-2 the second half. Are you convinced he’s fully comfortable in Jim Bob Cooter’s new no-huddle sets and might be a more-rounded quarterback without the Calvin Johnson obsession? Again, not unless the line goes from meh to meshing.

With Johnson’s retirement, the Lions lost one huge receiving target but have a bunch of decent ones – Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Theo Riddick, Anquan Boldin. And speaking of unanswered questions, don’t forget tight end Eric Ebron, who didn’t play in the exhibition season but enters his third year on the verge of something, good or bad.

Filled with high picks

For the Lions to have any chance at being better than your average middlin’ team, one of two things must happen: Either Ziggy Ansah racks up about 15 sacks on that deep defensive line, or No. 1 pick Taylor Decker prevents a bunch of sacks from his left tackle position.

That might be an over-simplification, but that’s what I do. The offensive line has talent, left to right — Decker (first round) Laken Tomlinson (first round), Travis Swanson (third round), Larry Warford (third round), Riley Reiff (first round). They’ve practiced together without much interruption, and after a rough exhibition opener, Decker looked more and more adept at pass blocking.

“Do I think they’re getting better? Absolutely,” Caldwell said. “Do I think we’ve arrived? No way, we’ve got a lot of work to do yet.”

The Lions have some potential advantages. All their linemen are young (ages 23-27). They’re athletic, slimmed down and quickened up by the heightened pace of the offense. They’re healthy, for the most part. And they can grow together, pretty much the only way a line becomes any good.

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Look at the opening opponent, the Colts, who revamped their line in an effort to better protect Andrew Luck. With prolific quarterbacks such as Luck and Stafford, the temptation is to minimize the running game, but the Lions have to run effectively one of these decades. Abdullah might be smallish (5-foot-9, 203), but he’s eager to pound behind the line.

“As a young running back, it’s very encouraging to see these guys busting their butts for the guys behind them,” Abdullah said. “I’m very optimistic, very happy with what I’ve seen so far. I see youth, athleticism, strength.”

Young and hungry

Reiff is the oldest guy on the line, in his fifth season and finally bumped to right tackle, his optimal position. In fact, Reiff is the most experienced in the entire group of nine linemen that includes three rookies — Decker, Graham Glasgow (third round) and Joe Dahl (fifth round).

This is no plug-and-play stopgap system. This is a foundation that can only get better, which sounds like something we’ve said for years.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has seen the progression, and in his 11th season he’s not prone to hyperbole. He says the Lions’ 11-man defensive line is the most-competitive he’s ever been around, and it showed early in camp when it kept plowing through the young offensive linemen.

That has started to change, ever so slightly. It has to change, ever so quickly.

“They’re a physical group, a little smaller with some of the guys, but they’re quick,” Ngata said. “Going against them in practice, I think sometimes, oh, I can hit this real quick, and they catch you. Their power pops out at you too, especially with Laken and Larry. It sometimes shocks you a little bit.”

The Lions’ offensive line hasn’t popped and shocked in a while. It can’t afford to be tentative and take its time developing now, not with an uncertain season on the line.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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