Lions offensive line vows to fix itself

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

A new-look offensive line was supposed to help the Lions improve their offense this season, but so far, the young unit has struggled.

Yet, despite the line's performance during an 0-3 start, the coaches and players remain encouraged. Their hope now becomes that the trials and tribulations the Lions have experienced — a combination of physical and mental errors coupled with some stout defensive opponents — can help the blockers turn things around.

Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn knows that turnaround has to happen sooner rather than later.

"We have to hold onto that belief with us that these guys are going to get stronger and stronger and stronger as they continue facing these things," Washburn said. "But, we've just got to stay committed to what we do and learn from our errors and just improve and get stronger, and we've got to do it quickly. It's not, 'Hey, be patient. By December we're going to be great.'

"No, we've got to be great by Monday."

After facing a Broncos team last week with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, two of the NFL's top edge rushers, the Lions face a Seahawks team tonight (8:30 p.m., ESPN) with elite defensive playmakers at all three levels, including the edge with Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin. The Lions offensive line might still be capable of being a strong group, but it'll be difficult to show improvement against a defense like Seattle's.

The Lions rank 32nd in rushing — yards and attempts — and have allowed 18 quarterback hits the past two games. According to Pro Football Focus, they've allowed 51 quarterback pressures, the most in the league.

While the offensive line is an easy scapegoat for a team ranked 27th in total offense, players and coaches cautioned this week about placing the blame on the group. In order to have an effective offense, every player has to do his job, and while tackles Riley Reiff and Cornelius Lucas — who was benched for LaAdrian Waddle during Week 3 — have appeared to mess up at times, there's no telling if a running back or tight end performed his assignment.

"I understand that we have to do better as a team to open up more touches for myself and also the other running backs," Abdullah said.

The key to solving any problem is identifying it, and that process has led center Travis Swanson to be optimistic.

"Everything that you see is correctable," he said.

To fix the issues, the Lions must improve in practice, both physically and mentally. Communication problems have led to some of the breakdowns, like having free rushers at some point in each game, but Waddle said the group's camaraderie is improving each day.

"It really has been a technique error here, a technique error there," Washburn said. "And it's unfortunate, and it's frustrating for us and for the team as a whole."

The good news for the Lions is that Washburn has seen good signs from the group. Although the Lions finished with just 69 rushing yards in Week 1, they averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and rookie Ameer Abdullah had a 24-yard touchdown run. In that game, the Lions allowed just three quarterback hits, though a couple were devastating for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Like other Lions coaches, Washburn wouldn't assign blame to certain players.

Veteran Manny Ramirez has played admirably at left and right guard, but Washburn said he's had strong moments and others he could improve on, like the other linemen.

Fortunately, Washburn said the players are coachable and take their shortcomings to heart. And in the past couple weeks, the players have embraced his message along with the new mindset in meetings.

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"It's not as loose," Lucas said. "It's all about business, but we're still taking the same mentality to the games as we were before. We've just got to go out there and play well."

The game mentality is to be "loose and aggressive," Lucas said, and that applies to every position.

Like many teams, the Lions have tried to work zone blocking into the run scheme, but they haven't had much success with it so far. Still, with young and athletic players, they think they have to personnel to thrive in both zone and man-to-man blocking.

While youth can help the Lions be more athletic, it could also explain some of the communication breakdowns, but Washburn wouldn't use that as an excuse. He also said the young players — like first-round guard Laken Tomlinson — have grown from some of the early pressure-packed situations. Washburn didn't want to use right guard Larry Warford's high ankle sprain, which has him questionable tonight, as an excuse either.

Instead, Washburn looks across the division for another reason to be confident. In 2009, the Packers allowed 50 sacks on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and ranked 14th in rushing. In 2012, they allowed 51 sacks on Rodgers and ranked 20th in rushing, but still won the NFC North at 11-5.

Watching tape of the young and inconsistent Green Bay offensive line in years past, Washburn thought that group could become good, and he sees similarly positive signs from his team.

"Do I believe we can become a good run team? Yes," Washburn said. "Do I believe we can protect our quarterback? Yes, strongly. And we have the people here to do that. We have done it, and we will do it."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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