Rogers: Caldwell has no good answer for Lions’ OL problems

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Jim Caldwell

Allen Park – There was a moment during Jim Caldwell’s Thursday press conference where he received a convoluted, poorly-stated question and he asked the reporter to rephrase.

“It’s OK if you ask a direct question,” Caldwell said.

Unfortunately, Caldwell doesn’t hold himself to the same standard when answering questions. If he doesn’t have a good response, or doesn’t want to answer, he’s quick to fall back on empty clichés.

For example, people around football love to talk about the importance of getting better every day. With that in mind, Caldwell was asked, “How is your offensive line better today than it was in Week 1?”

“We’ll see what happens on Sunday,” Caldwell said. “That’s going to be our thing. I just think that we’re slowly improving, not quickly enough, but I think every week it’s a – you’ve got to prove it again, over, and over, and over again.

“We haven’t arrived,” Caldwell said. “We’re a long way from where we need to be, and our job is to just keep getting better. We got to be better than we were at any point in time previously, and we’re not quite there yet, but that’s what practice is for, that’s what meetings are for in terms of getting these guys prepared, so we’re on that mission right now.”

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That was a lot of words that didn’t really say anything. Caldwell acknowledged improvement, but didn’t come close to offering specifics. Removing potential future performance from the equation, he was asked again, where has the line improved from the first game to its last, a 27-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

“I’m not certain,” Caldwell said. “For me, it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and all I can do is assess what we did in the quarters; we go by quarters. I think we were OK in that quarter, regardless of how it looks from a numbers standpoint. Wins are the most important thing, all in all, so we just got to find a way to get better. We’re in another quarter now, we’re 0-1 in this quarter, we got to go to work.”

Again, nothing.

No one will dispute wins and losses are more important than any statistic, but to suggest individual stats don’t add up to wins is equally foolish. If Caldwell doesn’t like a statistic, he’ll say it doesn’t matter. If a statistic reflects favorably for his team, like how well his defense stopped the run against the Panthers, he’ll gladly reference it, often multiple times.

And the real reason Caldwell isn’t eager to defend the play of his offensive line is that it’s been indefensible. We’ll concede a common Caldwell argument that not all blocking problems fall on the five-man unit, but the majority do. And those that don’t, well, that’s often coaching. If you are counting on an undersized receiver to hold an outside block on an edge run, that’s probably not the best use of talent.

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Here are some ugly numbers. Through five games, 31 percent of the Lions’ runs are being stopped for a loss or no gain. That stuff rate is tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for worst in the league. And the Lions are allowing sacks on 10 percent of their dropbacks, good for 29th in the NFL. Both figures are worse than last year, when the Lions’ blocking was already considered below average.

In addition to 18 sacks, quarterback Matthew Stafford has been hurried 42 times and knocked down another 28. Detroit’s linemen have also been flagged for an NFL-worst 12 holding penalties.

And this comes after extensive investment in the unit. The Lions paid good money to T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner to help solve some of the blocking woes that have been a primary factor in the team’s less-than-stellar offensive production.

To be fair, Lang and Wagner have largely lived up to their billing. Pro Football Focus grades Lang as the NFL’s third-best guard and Wagner the 11th-ranked tackle. It’s the other pieces, from the returning Travis Swanson and Graham Glasgow to the stopgap Taylor Decker replacement Greg Robinson, who aren’t carrying their weight to start the season.

Decker’s eventual return to the lineup should help. Everything from our eyes to the numbers tells us Robinson is the weakest link up front. But it’s difficult to suggest Decker alone will be the magic elixir to cure all the unit’s ails.

So here we are, five weeks into the season, and we’re looking at a Lions team that’s a respectable 3-2, but held back from being a true contender largely because of this unit. Is there any hope the group will find its footing in time to salvage a run at the NFC North, to clinch an elusive home playoff game?

When we get a direct answer, we’ll let you know.