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Niyo: Lions put it on the line to get run game on track

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The names on the backs of the jerseys are mostly the same up front, with one notable exception.

But the results can’t be the same for the Lions’ offensive line, and that’s the bottom line, one the boss underscored this offseason.

New Lions offensive line coach Jeff Davidson has plenty of NFL experience as both a coach and a player.

So what does that mean for the new guy tasked with pushing and prodding and pulling the Lions’ out of a rut this franchise has been stuck in for far too long? That was the question posed Tuesday to Jeff Davidson, the longtime NFL assistant hired this winter to coach the Lions’ line.

“We must have a lot to prove,” he replied, nodding. “We must have a lot to prove.”

That they do, and while the real proving ground is still months away, the work they're putting in now on the practice field clearly is geared toward making sure they do just that.

The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing last season, and not much better than that in previous years under former head coach Jim Caldwell. Detroit was 30th in rushing in 2016, 32nd in ’15, 28th in ’14, and you have to go back to Thanksgiving Day in 2013 to find the last time the Lions had a 100-yard rusher in a game.

Toughen up

 But beyond all that, what really irked Lions general manager Bob Quinn last fall was what he described recently as a lack of toughness his team displayed.

“All those critical situations — like, it’s goal-line, and we can’t run the ball half a yard — that bothered me,” Quinn said after wrapping up his third draft as GM earlier this month.

Injuries certainly were a factor, as the Lions were forced to start 12 different line combinations in 2017, with left tackle Taylor Decker sidelined early and T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner hobbling for much of the second half of the season.

Personnel deficiencies also played a role, especially in the backfield, which explains why Quinn moved decisively to add a power back in LeGarrette Blount in free agency and a likely starter in Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson in the second round of the draft.

But mention that to David Walker, the Lions’ running backs coach, and he’ll run his own counter play.

“Probably the biggest piece was Frank with the first pick,” Walker said, referencing Quinn’s decision to spend a first-round pick on Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, completing an overhaul of the line that the GM began three years ago. “Let’s not understate that.”

Ragnow, who adds another physical presence to the interior line, has been at left guard during OTA practices, with third-year pro Graham Glasgow sliding over to his natural center position, though Davidson said not to read too much into that yet.

“When we start playing games in the fall, that’s when we have to make a decision on who our best five are and how they fit,” he said.

As for how he fits, Davidson’s ties to Quinn and Patricia go back to the early 2000s in New England, where he spent eight seasons coaching tight ends and the offensive line. By 2004, his last year with the Patriots, Patricia had joined Bill Belichick’s staff as an offensive assistant, “and we’ve had a good relationship since then.”

More: Lions' Cooter focused on improvement, not scheme

Other relationships are perhaps more important now, though. Jim Bob Cooter, the holdover offensive coordinator from Caldwell’s staff, is the one who’ll need to be in sync with Davidson, and so far, so good, it seems. Cooter, who still has much to prove as a young play-caller, describes his working relationship with Davidson as “good” and “productive” and adds, “I’m excited about where we’re headed.”

Just don’t expect them to end up in one place, with one idea of how to get things moving on the ground. Davidson has used a mix of power and zone throughout his career, and as Cooter says, “I don’t think you can dominate one schematic way in this league. Defenses are too good. They game plan too well for you. … If you lived in inside zone and you ran that every run play, I think defenses would come up with some pretty good plans to counteract that.”

So for now, they’ll continue to experiment with a variety of looks “and see which ones we’re best at,” Davidson said. “Obviously, the more diverse we can be, the better off we’re gonna be.”

Been there, done that

What they’d better be, though, is quicker off the ball and more cohesive as a unit, something they simply weren’t under Davidson’s predecessor, Ron Prince, who was fired along with Caldwell the day after the 2017 season ended. Prince’s frayed relationship with his players — particularly some of the veterans on the line — only added to the problems on the field.

And while everyone insists the past isn’t part of the present discussions in Allen Park, Davidson’s track record as a well-respected coach should help in that regard. Same goes for his background as a player who spent five years in the NFL before retiring after a shoulder injury in 1994.

“Obviously, Jeff’s a guy who has been around for a long time, and he’s a former player himself,” said Lang, the Lions’ Pro Bowl right guard. “So he understands what it’s like sitting in those chairs.”

Davidson acknowledges that, though he adds, “I don’t know that it’s as important as it’s being made out to be.”

What’s important, he says, is that he has a meeting room full of smart, tough players, from Lang and Wagner on the right side to Decker — a fellow Buckeye — on the left. He also has a mandate from the top on down to make sure that group lives up to its potential.

“Bob and Matt have done a nice job of bringing the right kind of guys here,” he said. “But as offensive linemen, I think it’s important that we take it on ourselves to say we earned the next run. You have to be good at one to get another one dialed up. That should be our intent.”

And the result? Well, the gap between intent and action, that’s the one they’ve got to figure out.