Lions' Vaitai undergoes back surgery, not yet ruled out for season
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions already knew they'd be without Halapoulivaati Vaitai for at least four games after placing him on injured reserve because of a back injury, but the absence is trending toward considerably longer — even potentially season-ending — after the offensive guard underwent back surgery in Dallas this week.
"Yeah, you’re definitely gonna miss Big V," offensive line coach Hank Fraley said. "It’s always hard to replace. He’s great, he’s in great spirits. I’ve been texting with him and he just said, ‘I’ll be ready to go, coach,’ so I can’t wait for him (to return)."
With Vaitai out, the Lions are expected to continue leaning on third-year lineman Logan Stenberg to start.
"He knows he's got an unbelievable opportunity," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "You can't ask for anything better right now and it's his for the taking and if he wants to continue to help us and continue to improve, that would be great for him, great for us."
A fourth-round pick in 2020, Stenberg made his first career start against the Eagles last Sunday. He battled some nerves early, committing back-to-back false-start penalties on the opening drive. He also allowed pressure that rushed quarterback Jared Goff into a pass that was intercepted. But overall, the Lions liked what they saw from Stenberg's debut.
"Yeah, I would say this, at the end of the day, overall, it was a positive," Campbell said. "It was a positive showing for Stenberg. Inside of the positive showing was ups and downs, but overall, I thought there was more good than there was not-so-good. It's definitely something to build off of."
As for Vaitai, he has struggled with injuries since signing a five-year, $45 million deal with the Lions as a free agent ahead of the 2020 season. In his first year, he suffered a foot injury before the season while running the hill at the team's practice facility. That issue lingered the rest of the year, limiting him to 10 games and limiting his effectiveness when he was on the field.
Things were much better last season, when he started in 15 of the team's 17 games and performed at a higher level, particularly as a pass protector. He didn't allow a sack in 2021, after surrendering six the previous year.
Fraley also raved about Vaitai's value off the field.
"He’s great for the room, too," Fraley said. "He’s the big teddy bear in the room, honestly. Big V’s the loose, childish kinda guy that we love in our room. Every O-line needs one and that’s him, but when he gets on the field, it’s a different story. He’s moving people. So, it’s a big loss."