What having a top offensive line could look like for the Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — Expectations for the Detroit Lions offensive line are sky high, and why wouldn't they be, given the investments? Already viewed as team's best unit heading into the offseason, the Lions didn't hesitate to further upgrade their blocking, using the No. 7 pick in the draft on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell. 

That's the kind of move you make when you're looking to take a group from good to great. And while external expectations are lofty, they're even higher among the players themselves. 

Lions offensive tackles Penei Sewell (58) and Dan Skipper (70) run through blocking drills during practice.

"The expectations are high every year, you know what I'm saying?," second-year guard Jonah Jackson said on Thursday. "Starts up front — we're the engine to the car — so it starts with us, and if we ain't clicking, the whole operation can't go. So the expectation stays the same, and shoot, I'm excited to get rolling with the group man.

"I think we can be the best (in the league), know what I'm saying?," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of how far we want to go, and how we attack each week."

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So what does being the best offensive line look like? Well, like any position on the football field, there are obvious statistical metrics used to measure for success. Up front, it starts with two — sacks allowed and yards per carry. 

Even though it's an unreasonable goal, Jackson said the aim is to allow zero sacks on the season. For an offensive lineman, it's unacceptable for the quarterback to get hit, even once. But that's hardly a reality over the course in a single game, let alone across an entire season. 

In 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL's gold standard when it came to protecting the quarterback. They allowed just 14 sacks, seven fewer than any other team. In fact, it was the fewest allowed by any team in at least a decade. 

The Lions, on the other hand, surrendered 42 sacks, which was a middle-of-the-pack figure. It marked the sixth time in the past seven seasons the team has given up 40 or more sacks. You have to go back to 2013 to find the Lions among the league-leaders, finishing second to the Denver Broncos that season. 

So while Jackson set the goal at zero, reducing the sack total by 10 would be an excellent start for the Lions. To be in the conversation for the league's best, the team would need to halve the previous season's figure. 

Beyond sacks, the Lions are eyeing significant improvement in the ground game this upcoming season. It's an annual goal, but the hope is the addition of Sewell and the bolstering of the backfield will finally be the right formula to get things on track. 

"They say he's a 20-year-old, but he acts like a grown man with how he handles himself not only in the meetings, but on the field," Jackson said about the rookie addition. "And definitely on the field, you see why he was the seventh overall pick. It's very evident, and I'm excited for his future and what's to come for him."

The Lions averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, which ranked near the bottom of the NFL. That's been a long-running theme since the abrupt retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders ahead of the 1999 season. 

Jackson said the unit has its sights set on a 4.5-yard average. The near 10% jump would seem to be a modest improvement, and wouldn't even crack the top-10 these days, but it would be first time Detroit hit the benchmark since 1997, when Sanders snapped the 2,000-yard plateau.  

The pieces are unquestionably in place for the Lions. Beyond Sewell, the team returns four starters from last year's until, which Pro Football Focus ranked 13th at season's end.

Left tackle Taylor Decker is coming off his best seasons, and at 27 years old, is entering his physical prime. Center Frank Ragnow, 25, solidified his standing as one of the league's best centers, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2020. And Jackson and fellow guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai are a solid interior pairing when healthy. 

If the line can meet its goals, trimming the sacks and finally helping generate a viable rushing attack, there's potential to not only be considered one of the league's best units next season, but given the group's collective age and contract status, there's room for a mutliple-year stretch of dominance.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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