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Niyo: Lions experience more pain than gain in preseason tune-up

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions offensive guard Frank Ragnow (77) is helped off the field in the second quarter.

Detroit — Whatever they gained matters far less than what they lost.

And for the moment, what we learned about the Lions in their preseason home finale —a 24-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field on Friday night — means nothing until we find out what we don’t yet know.

It was painful enough to see teammates and coaches consoling linebacker Jarrad Davis as he was carted off the field after just two plays Friday, a friendly-fire casualty as teammate Devon Kennard fell awkwardly on the back of his right leg. But then there was another ugly lowlight less than an hour later, as center Frank Ragnow needed help from trainers to hobble to the locker room late in the first half.

So as dress rehearsals go, well, this one couldn't have gone much worse.

“Anytime those things happen, it’s not fun,” quarterback Matthew Stafford, who made his first and only start of the preseason Friday and managed to escape unscathed. “We understand it’s part of the game. It is a little bit more frustrating considering it is a preseason game. But these things happen.”

And that’s the inherent danger of preseason football in the NFL. It’s why coaches struggle mightily to balance the risks against the rewards, weighing the fear of what we witnessed Friday — the Bills had their share of injury scares as well — against the desire to see starters shake off the rust and face some live action before Week 1.

“I think we can argue either side of the coin on all of this: Hindsight is 20-20,” said Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who's still day-to-day himself as he wheels around on a scooter after offseason surgery. “Guys can get injured during practice, guys can get injured during the game.  I mean, it’s football. Injuries are part of the game. And that’s something that we all have to deal with.”

'Anything can happen'

But now? Before the games that truly count have even kicked off? That’s what makes this such a tough pill to swallow, particularly for a team that has largely played it safe this offseason when it comes to preventive care.

And for players, yes, that’s the part that’s impossible to completely ignore, especially as more and more teams err on the side of caution. The Rams, remember, benched all their starters for the entire preseason a year ago, then rolled to the NFC title. Other teams appear to be heading in that direction as well.

“It’s an interesting feeling going out there,” Stafford admitted. “You prepare as hard as you can to go play and you’re just hoping that nothing too bad happens. You do that in the regular season, but your mind is just on winning, whatever it takes. I mean, I’d crawl around on the field to help us win a regular-season game. So (it’s) a little bit different. But anytime you step between the white lines, you gotta know anything can happen.”

It can, and it did almost immediately Friday night.

Davis went down awkwardly as he chased Bills running back LeSean McCoy on the second play from scrimmage. Technically, the play didn’t even count as McCoy’s 9-yard gain was negated by a holding penalty. But every play carries a consequence in football, and Davis slammed his fist into the turf once he realized he wasn’t able to get to his feet after Kennard was blocked into him. He tried to put weight on his right ankle, but couldn’t, and after being helped off the field and briefly examined on the Lions’ bench, he was taken by a medical cart to the locker room.

Before he left, though, his teammates came over to him, some offering a slap on the shoulder pads and others offering reassuring words. Veteran defensive tackle Mike Daniels spoke at length with Davis before he exited, and Kennard shared a moment as well.

“Just making sure he knows that we’re there for him,” Kennard said. “That’s like the leader of our defense, and the heart-and-soul of the defense, to an extent. We just let him know we’ve got his back and support him and we’re praying that he’s OK.”

Ragnow’s injury was similar, as he collided with rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson, while trying to make a pulling block on a second-and-goal carry for C.J. Anderson midway through the second quarter. Hockenson had missed his blocking assignment and ended up hooking down Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson, who then fell backward into the inside of Ragnow’s lower left leg. He, too, had to be helped off, and after briefly testing the ankle on the sideline, Ragnow headed for the locker room as well.

“You always feel really bad and you hope that everything is all right,” offensive lineman Graham Glasgow said. “Especially in a game like this where it’s the preseason — and it matters, but it doesn’t count — it really sucks to have an injury, however severe it is.”

Ailing anchors

These aren’t just two of general manager Bob Quinn’s last three first-round picks headed for the MRI machine. (And one inadvertently sent there by the third.) It’s also two of the most reliable — and durable — returning players from Patricia’s own rookie season as a head coach.

Ragnow was on the field for all but one of the Lions’ 1,075 offensive snaps last year, and the only one he missed was due to an equipment issue after one of his cleats ripped in half in Detroit’s final home game.

Davis, meanwhile, led all Lions defenders by playing 976 of 987 defensive snaps in 2018, and he missed just two games the year before as a rookie.

Even if Ragnow’s injury is less severe — he missed the final five games of his senior season at Arkansas with an injury to his other ankle that required surgery — losing him might be a bigger blow for the Lions, who spent the entire offseason searching for a viable third starter on the interior offensive line. Now they might have to find another just two weeks before the regular-season opener.

Ragnow moved back to his natural center position this spring after an impressive rookie season playing left guard. If he’s out for any period of time, Glasgow will have to slide back to center and the Lions likely would roll the dice with Joe Dahl and Kenny Wiggins as the starting guards.

That's less than ideal for an offense that's built around running the ball and a play-action passing game. And one that can't afford to let Stafford take anywhere near the beating he took last season. 

On the other side of the ball, the experience — and talent — Quinn has added to the Lions defense this offseason may help offset the loss of Davis if his injury is as serious as it appeared Friday. Still, it won't be easy to replace the Lions' leading tackler and defensive signal-caller or a player the coaches were counting on to play an even more dynamic role rushing the passer this season.

But nobody said this would be easy, I suppose. It certainly never is for the Lions.

"It’s the NFL," Kennard said. "It’s the next-man-up mentality, and that’s how it’s got to be. Our goals, our objective, our plan, nothing can change."


Twitter: @JohnNiyo