Injuries force Lions' offensive line, once a strength, to patch holes
Allen Park — History is repeating itself and certainly not in a way the Detroit Lions had hoped to see.
Similar to this spring, the Detroit Lions believed they had put the finishing touches on a quality offensive line an offseason earlier after signing free agent Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle and drafting guards Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg to replace Graham Glasgow, who accepted a big contract offer from the Denver Broncos a month earlier.
But the projected starting lineup of Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Jackson and Vaitai went on to start just one game together in 2020. A revolving door of injuries sabotaged Detroit's design as the team was forced to start eight different combinations up front.
The problems began with Vaitai suffering a foot injury while doing conditioning work after practice days before the star to the season. From there, Dahl, Ragnow and Tyrell Crosby, who latched on to a starting job while Vaitai and Dahl were out of action, all missed time due to their own injuries.
Consistency with starting combinations hasn't been an issue for the Lions this season, at least until this week. Still, don't be fooled: Injures have continued to be a major issue for the unit.
Decker, Detroit's only lineman to play every offensive snap in 2020, suffered a freak finger injury requiring surgery during the first regular season practice, once again forcing the team to shuffle the deck before even playing a game.
That meant moving first-round draft pick Penei Sewell to the blindside, a spot he dominated at in college, but had practiced little during his first offseason with the Lions as the team transitioned him to right tackle.
Detroit backfilled Sewell's right tackle role with Matt Nelson, not Crosby, who landed on injured reserve after missing most of training camp with a hamstring strain.
And to their credit, that starting five of Sewell, Jackson, Ragnow, Vaitai and Nelson didn't miss a single snap until Ragnow exited Sunday's game in the first quarter with a toe injury and was replaced by Evan Brown.
"He’s got, basically, a version of turf toe right now," Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday. "We’ll know a lot more this afternoon with him. I would say he’s probably going to be out, though."
Now, neither Decker or Ragnow — unquestionably Detroit's best and most durable linemen coming into the season — are expected to play next week against Minnesota, according to Campbell.
Suddenly, what was supposed to be the unit the Lions could build around is a patchwork group. And not that there's ever a good time to be down two of your best starters, but the Vikings present some unique challenges for an offensive line with their heavy usage of pressure looks that are designed to put stress on an opponent up front.
After a down season a year ago, the Vikings are back near the top of the rankings in sacks, tallying 13 through four games. Minnesota is paced by Danielle Hunter, who after missing all of the 2020 season due to injury, already has five sacks.
Short yardage a tall task
Following a game of woes in the red zone, Campbell said he's going back and re-evaluating all of his calls and strategies on third and fourth down, particularly when the team has needed short yardage.
"I need to look at that, and we’ve got to be a lot better and we’re going to have to live in that world in practice," Campbell said. "That’s going to have to be the main focus for us to continue down that road. Those are the facts because we’re not good enough there right now, third and fourth down, two to three."
Needing 1 yard on third down, the Lions largely have been effective. Running the ball three times and throwing four passes, the offense has converted six of seven tries. And they're 2-for-3 on fourth-and-1, with the lone misfire being the team's final offensive play Sunday against Chicago, when they rushed to the line and quarterback Jared Goff missed wide on a throw to rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
When needing two or three yards on third down, the Lions have passed all eight times, converting just twice. They also failed on both fourth-down tries from that distance.
Asked if he needed to lean more heavily on power back Jamaal Williams in those situations, Campbell acknowledged the possibility.
"Look, I don’t disagree with you in the fact," Campbell said. "Jamaal ran his rear off yesterday. He was on point and, look, it’s certainly something we’re going to look at.”
Okwara out for season
Campbell confirmed outside linebacker Romeo Okwara is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon against the Bears.
"I’ll tell you what, man, the way he works and everything that he’s put into this, he’s a top-notch pro," Campbell said. "I hate it for him and I hate it for our team, but I know he’ll come back better than ever next year."
The coach noted he's confident with the depth the team has behind Okwara, including a good possibility Trey Flowers will return to action this week. He's missed the past two games with knee and shoulder issues.
The other option is going bigger up front. The Lions recently got Jashon Cornell back from suspension and claimed 6-foot-5, 274-pounder Eric Banks off waivers late last week. Da'Shawn Hand also is nearing his return after missing the first four games with a groin injury.
"Look, we can always shift," Campbell said. "We can always go a little bigger, a little heavier, a little more four-down front type of thing. So we’ve got flexibility. We can move in any direction we need to move in per our personnel and our depth. So yeah, look, we’re going to make this work."