Allen Park — It was unfamiliar territory for Lions fans after the big free agent signings of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner looked like the final pieces to bolster an improving offensive line heading into the 2017 season.
Suddenly, it looked like the men protecting Matt Stafford were going to be a strength of this football team.
Taylor Decker was a stud as a rookie at left tackle, Graham Glasgow exceeded expectations at left guard and Travis Swanson was coming off his best year as a pro. Surely, this was the year the running game would take off and Stafford would be given time to make magic from the pocket.
That all changed in early June when Decker went down with a shoulder injury that cost him half of the season. All the optimism came to a screeching halt and became an ominous sign of things to come.
“Obviously you want to have your projected five starters all year,” Decker said. “But that’s just not football. That’s not the nature of it.”
Lang has struggled with injuries all season but has still managed to start 12 games, Wagner has missed the previous two games with an ankle injury and Swanson is dealing with a concussion.
“We’ve had more guys in and out of our line as much as anyone I would assume,” Caldwell said on Monday. “They prepare extremely hard. I think it’s our attitude, determination and the fight of the young men who play for us.”
The Lions were missing three regular starters this past Sunday against the Bears. Swanson and Wagner were ruled out before the game, and Lang left early in the second quarter.
With Swanson out and Glasgow moving to center, Joe Dahl, making his first career start, became the 11th different starter on the offensive line this season.
Despite the line giving up four sacks, Caldwell thought Dahl turned in an acceptable performance.
“Yeah, (Dahl) did all right,” Caldwell said. “(He) did some good things out there, and he hung in there pretty well. Even though a guy may not have gotten a whole lot of playing time previously, we treat him as if he’s supposed to play well and supposed to handle whoever he faces.”
Despite facing such long odds with a patchwork offensive line, the Lions have been able to stay in playoff contention late in the season. Though they’ve given up the sixth-most sacks (43) in the NFL this season and have the 31st-ranked rushing attack, Stafford has still managed to throw for the third-most yards (3,920).
“I’m not going to sit here and project,” Decker said when asked about the playoff push. “We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. It’s just a weekly thing. We’ll see what small improvements we can get and whoever goes out there is expected to play well.”