Protecting Matthew Stafford will be key against Jets

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Although the Lions have struggled so far this season in their run game, they are having success in passing.

Not only do they rank sixth, with 277 passing yards per game, but the Lions have kept quarterback Matthew Stafford relatively clean, giving up only eight sacks in three games. That's come without their starting right tackle, as LaAdrian Waddle (calf) has missed the last two games because of injury.

Garrett Reynolds and rookie Cornelius Lucas have tried to fill the gap on the ride side, and the entire offensive line has worked to give Stafford enough time to get the passing game going. It's a group effort to ensure Stafford stays upright and healthy.

With a fierce Jets defense awaiting in Sunday's matchup, continuing the success in protecting Stafford will be a priority.

"Our offensive-line coaches, our backs, our tight ends are all involved in pass protection. It's a priority for them to protect our quarterback," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said this week. '"That's not anything that's different or changed, regardless of who we play. If he gets hit once, that's far too many in their eyes and we certainly believe that as well.

"But, I do think that that's an area that (the Jets) have certainly been able to harass quarterbacks consistently and we want to try to keep that to a minimum."

The Jets' defense has totaled 10 sacks in the first three games, tied for most in the league. Led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Demario Davis, the defense will be as big a challenge as the Lions face in the loss at Carolina.

Help could be on the way, as Waddle has returned to practice this week, though his participation has been limited as he works his way back to playing shape. His return to the starting lineup could be a boost for a line that hasn't struggled but could use Waddle's experience on the right side.

"The other guys are doing really good but LaAdrian is that guy who's that bully," left guard Rob Sims said. "He's done a great job since he's been here and he's part of our starting five."

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said having Waddle back would be a welcome sight, but Reynolds and Lucas are playing well in his place.

"Well, any time you get your starter back on the field, you're going to be happier and feel more comfortable with his performance," Lombardi said. "At the same time, I think it's easy to say, 'Oh, it's these backup right tackles.' And it's not.

"It's everyone — everyone's got to do better in order to keep him (Stafford) from getting hit."

While the Jets' front seven presents some challenges for the offensive line, the secondary could be an area that the Lions could exploit, with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron among the targets Stafford could find in the passing game.

But that passing attack starts with giving Stafford and the sixth-ranked passing offense the time to let receivers get open and create separation from the defensive backs.

That could mean keeping the tight ends in to block more and letting the running backs aid in max protection as well. For Brandon Pettigrew, it's nothing new, but helping out comes down to being an individual task to ensure that each player is doing his part.

"It's every man for himself, taking care of his responsibilities. There's a few things that we need to clean up, minor things which have led to sacks and we'll clean it up," Pettigrew said. "We come back, we work hard as a group and the offensive line works hard. We're going to work hard to get that out of our system."