Depleted Lions offensive line looks to still pack a punch with reshaped 'fist'
Allen Park — Detroit Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley has a favorite analogy he uses when working with his position group. He compares each of his linemen to a finger, weak on their own, but when working together as a five-man unit and balled into a fist, they can be powerful and effective.
Detroit was counting on that fist this year to help pummel opposing defenses into submission. On paper, the offensive line was supposed to be the team's unquestioned strength, maybe its only strength. But through four games, two of the five fingers are broken and a third has an ingrown nail.
Offensive tackle Taylor Decker, coming off his best season, has been on the shelf all year after requiring surgery for a finger injury he suffered the first week of practice. And Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, arguably the roster's best player regardless of position, joined Decker on the injured list this week with a turf toe.
And the cherry on top is rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell nursing an injured ankle, which might impact his availability to play this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, one of the top team's in the NFL at generating pass-rush pressure.
“We’re going to be smart with what we do game plan-wise to try to help our guys out," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "And not just them, but everybody. We’ve gone back and try to really look at what we think we do well. We’re four weeks in now. What do our guys do well, knowing what we have up front moving forward and what they have, how do we help?
"So the plan is catered that way somewhat, and there again, we’ve got to play complementary football," Campbell said. "We can’t get in one of these — like we’ve been — where we’re down and we’re in two-minute mode and we’re having to throw it every play and they know it and we know it. That doesn’t serve us well all of the time."
To give credit where it's due, Detroit offensive line has fared reasonable well with Decker out. Matt Nelson, a little more than two years removed from moving over from defensive tackle, has held up at right tackle. The same can be said for Evan Brown, who stepped in for the final three quarters last Sunday after Ragnow exited the contest.
But Minnesota presents a unique challenge for the patchwork group.
First, Nelson is going to have to deal with the dominant edge-rushing abilities of Danielle Hunter, who after missing a year due to injury is among the league leaders with five sacks through four games.
"He’s an element that they need, and I think he’s one of those pieces that makes them pretty dangerous because he’s one of those D-ends that I think plays the run as good as anybody and he’s an excellent pass rusher, too," Campbell said. "He can transition from run to rush very quickly and run-action stuff and he’s long, he’s a heck of an athlete, high motor."
But the more pressing concern is arguably what the Vikings do on the inside, where coach Mike Zimmer likes to stress an offensive line both mentally and physically by crowding the line of scrimmage with potential blitzing options to keep the quarterback and center guessing.
And even though the Lions have seen Zimmer's defense more than a dozen times since he took over as the Vikings coach in 2014, he's still keeping them on their toes.
"I think Coach Zimmer is always evolving and always looking for ways to attack anybody's offense," Fraley said. "He's good at it. He's one of the best. It can be a cat-and-mouse game a little bit, so we want to always stay one or two steps ahead of him, instead of being behind him."
With Ragnow out for the foreseeable future, Brown will be called upon to make his first start of his career Sunday. Since going undrafted out of SMU in 2018, the 60 offensive snaps he's played this season mark a career-high.
But despite the relative inexperience, at least at this level (Brown started 46 games for SMU), the Lions don't plan to shift more of the responsibility for the protection calls to quarterback Jared Goff.
"He's done a nice job," Fraley said about Brown. "He's a very smart player. He and Frank do well together, communicate well together. They see the game the same way and they've got a good football IQ. It helps. Guys like that can rally the troops and get everybody on the same page, make calls and redirect things. It's good that he's a very good comfortable player and a very confident player."
Whether Sewell can go is another conversation the Lions will have to weigh as the week progresses. If not, they have options, including the possibility of moving Halapoulivaati Vaitai to left tackle, where he started a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles a year back.
Regardless of how it ends up looking, Fraley knows he won't get any sympathy from Zimmer and the Vikings. His job is to prepare a new fist that's as effective, or at least as close as reasonably possible, to the one the Lions envisioned having at the start of the season.
"You always want your guys out there, but we're just taking it in stride," Fraley said. "...I don't see our wheels falling off. We're going to go out there compete, go out there and play and play a physical game. We're going to bring our hard hat and lunch pail and get ready to work."