Sewell shows the right stuff as Decker returns at left tackle for Lions

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh — Of course Penei Sewell loved the game plan. 

Any strategy that limits the Lions’ rookie offensive tackle from dropping back in pass protection against All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt is, by and large, the ideal situation for whoever’s up to the task.

“As an O-lineman,” Sewell said, “I love a game plan that’s going forward more than backwards.”

After playing the first eight games of his NFL career at left tackle, the return of Taylor Decker put Sewell on the right side in Sunday’s 16-16 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Sewell's primary task would be to shut down Watt and a Pittsburgh defense that loves to bring the heat.

Detroit ran the ball 39 times and threw 25 passes, as the notoriously unbalanced attack flipped the script and came out with a 100-yard rusher — and then some — with the Lions' front getting a major boost with Decker’s return.

Lions' Jermar Jefferson finds a hole and goes into the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter.

“We knew coming in what the game plan was, we knew what the weather was going to be like,” Sewell said. “What you guys saw, we expected, and we just grind it out from there. Just a play at a time, get as much yardage as possible, and just focus on the next play.”

Watt exited the game on the second-to-last play of the third quarter, when he injured an ankle while picking up his first and only sack of the day. He finished with just three tackles. 

There was some speculation as to how Sewell would fare at right tackle. He played left tackle his entire career, was switched to right tackle during training camp and preseason so that he could play opposite of Decker, and then switched again to left tackle when Decker got hurt before the season began.

Ironically, he said, all the flip-flopping around prepared him for the debut in a position he expects to finally start growing comfortable with.

“It felt real comfortable,” Sewell said. “It was really a testament to all that work that happened in training camp, when I was getting comfortable with that position, and also, playing left tackle kind of helped with the transition, weirdly.

“Having those first eight games (under) my belt helped tremendously. I know the speed of the game and everything that comes along with an NFL game.”

One thing that helped the offensive line Sunday was the departure of tight end Darren Fells. Not because Fells was a liability, but because 6-foot-7, 316-pound tackle Matt Nelson was essentially converted to a tight end for heavier packages.

“Getting Decker back was two-fold,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “Number one, the player that he is. But also, to be able to have Nelson going in to play our jumbo tight end, he’s outstanding, man. He’s a good football player. He’s done a good job for us as tackle all year, and man, I thought he stepped in and ... he did a really, really good job.”

The Lions had their two longest running touchdowns in eight years on Sunday, in part thanks to the holes that the offensive line was creating. 

D’Andre Swift had 130 yards on 33 carries. When Jermar Jefferson broke a 28-yard run for a touchdown before halftime, that was the Lions’ longest rushing score since 2013. Godwin Igwebuike broke that mark the very next quarter with a 42-yard touchdown run — through a hole created by Sewell and Nelson.

Nelson, who left the game with an ankle injury in the second half and did not return, was a key component to feeding the Steelers a brand-new look that opened things up for the Lions’ rushing attack.

“I think we got a lot of looks we didn’t necessarily practice during the week,” Steelers linebacker Joe Schobert said. “Their big tight end that they brought in, we knew Fells was gone. We didn’t know what they were going to do to replace him. They gave us a lot of looks and it took us probably longer than it should have to be able to start nailing the screws down on that.”

The tests won’t stop coming for Sewell any time soon. Detroit travels to Cleveland next week to face a defensive front bookended by Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. The week after that, it's a meeting with a Chicago Bears defense led by Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn on the outside.

For now, Sewell is focused on processing the emotions of the day.

“It’s definitely weird,” Sewell said of Detroit’s tie with the Steelers.

“But I kind of take this as a loss.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.