A Very Serious Talk: The Offensive Line

>> 5.21.2012

Okay, it's time to have a Very Serious Talk about the Lions' offensive line.

I've been reading a lot of stuff lately about the offensive line. Let's nail down some facts about last season, so we can move forward like grownups.

  • The Lions were bad at run blocking last year.

    According to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards stat, the Lions had the 31st—2nd-worst—run-blocking unit in the NFL. This will not come as a shock to anyone who, you know, watched the Lions last year. Their 3.70 ALY was well off the league average of 4.08. Their Power Success rate (52%) was ranked 28th, and their Stuffed Percentage (21%) was 25th.

    However, the raw YPC by by the Lions' running backs was 4.22; that's just off the NFL average of 4.31. That's the 19th-best pace in the league, packed tightly with a lot of other teams right around the average. Being mediocre at the second level (ranked 21st) and solid in the open field (ranked 14th) shows the Lions' motley crew of backs managed to make things happen on the rare occasions they had daylight.

  • The Lions weren't really trying to run block last year.

    However, let's give that figure a little context. The Lions attempted passes more (666 times) and more often (62.9% of plays) than anyone else in the NFL. The Lions lined up in the shotgun 68% of the time, more than anyone else in the NFL. They carried the ball fewer times (356) than all but one team, and at the rarest rate (33.6) of any team. Though the Lions were undoubtedly going to be a pass-first team in 2011, they almost completely abandoned the traditional run game. Expecting them to be good at it doesn’t make sense.

    Perhaps the Lions' interior line isn't comprised of mashers, and the Lions didn't change personnel address that in the offseason. But swapping Dominic Raiola out for a he-man road grader would be making the Lions better at what they did one-third of the time last year at the expense of what they did two-thirds of the time. That's just not smart.

  • Rob Sims will be better at run blocking this year.

    As we saw in the guard Old Mother Hubbard, Rob Sims was one of the best pass-blocking guards in the NFL last season, but well below-average against the run. Sims intentionally added 20 pounds of quality weight from the end of the season to now, and he did it to shore up his anchoring against the run and interior pass rush:

    “Last couple years, I’ve been playing really light -- a lot lighter than I’m used to playing, and I felt there were some parts of my game that were affected because of that,” he said. “Mainly, some of the stuff I do on the run and stuff like that, I just didn’t have that pop I was used to. It wasn’t I was just gorging myself and wanted to be 20 extra pounds out there, it’s just that we’ve been having some trouble keeping weight on me throughout the season ,so I wanted to start a little heavier and work my way down.”

    Per Dave Birkett, Sims actually dropped below 300 pounds by the end of last season; that’s simply too light for today’s NFL, 68% shotgun notwithstanding. By getting back up to about 320, Sims should have much better luck cracking open seams for Leshoure and Best to pop through.

  • The Lions will run the ball more this year.

    The Lions mostly abandoned the run once they lost Jahvid Best, had one glorious game of healthy Kevin Smith, and then abandoned the run again. Best, Smith, and Mikel Leshoure are all participating in OTAs, which is a fantastic sign. If all are healthy, expect the run game—and under-center snaps—to be a bigger part of the Lions’ playcalling. When you’re setting up to run block, you’ll be more successful at it.

  • Riley Reiff could provide an immediate boost, or not.

    We know from the offensive tackle Old Mother Hubbard that Jeff Backus is an above-average left tackle. We know he began the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and played like it. We know that after the bye week, he played as well as any left tackle in the NFL. We know he tore a bicep against New Orleans in the playoffs; we know he’s supposed to be ready for training camp.

    The question here isn’t whether Jeff Backus can play left tackle at a high level, it’s for how long he’ll be able. Ideally, Backus gets healthy and has a great season, and Riley Reiff beings to push him next offseason, or possibly the year after that. Maybe Reiff solidifies the right tackle spot for the second half of this season, and swings over to the left once

    It doesn’t sound like that’s the plan, though. As Jim Schwartz said:

    "He's a left tackle. He fits the criteria that you want at that position. He's big, tough, he's a former tight end and a three-time state wrestling champ (South Dakota). He comes from a great tradition of offensive linemen at Iowa. He's a good run blocker and a good pass protector. "Even though he is young and will still improve in certain areas, we're not drafting a guy that's a developmental player."

    Wow, that sounds almost like he's planning on Reiff pushing Backus from Day One.

    "We'll put them all out there and we'll play. Their play in training camp, in the OTAs and in the preseason, that will determine those things, not anything we are thinking right now."

    Oh. So that right there is Jim Schwartz opening the competition for a spot  Jeff Backus has had on lockdown for 176 consecutive games. Moreover, it’s him throwing a pretty big bucket of cold water on the notion that Reiff is short-term right tackle help. It’s not to say he won’t moonlight there, of course, but the Lions view Reiff as their left tackle for the medium-, long-, and possibly even short run.

    The question is, even if Reiff supplants Backus, will Reiff play any better than Backus? Maybe, maybe not. I couldn’t think of a segue, but Holy Schwartz! regressed PFF blocking grades against offensive tackle arm length and oh man is it worth a click.

    Per Football Outsiders, the Lions ran behind Backus 20% of the time. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the NFL; only the Cardinals, Seahawks, Bengals, and Rams ran behind their left tackle more. With an ALY of 3.65, they were only 24th-most effective at running behind the LT, but the Lions clearly trusted Backus much more than the interior or the right side.

    Oddly, the Lions were most effective when running behind the right tackle. At 4.22 ALY, they were 20th-best in the NFL, close to the 4.26 league average. So if Riley Reiff is to improve either left tackle spot, he’ll have to be more trustworthy than Jeff Backus all-around, OR the best run-blocker on the line, OR so much better at pass protection than Cherilus that the run blocking doesn’t matter.

  • The Lions are actually really really good at pass blocking.
  • I know many Lions fans still freak out about that time Julius Peppers beat Jeff Backus and injured Matthew Stafford, but the Lions dropped back 702 times and allowed only 36 sacks in 2011; that's an Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.9%. That's 10th-best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus graded the Lions at +35.0 in pass protection, 3rd-best in the NFL.

    I know for many people pass protection starts and stops with a 6’-4,” 360-pound He-Man Hall of Fame Left Tackle who never ever gives up a sack, ever. But those guys come once or twice in a generation, if at all—and there are four other guys on the line, protecting four pass-rush gaps the left tackle never gets to. The fact is, the Lions do a very good job of keeping Matthew Stafford clean—even though Stafford is exposed more often than any other quarterback in the NFL.

    We clear now?


    Mike,  May 21, 2012 at 12:49 PM  

    I think what will truly test the Lions run blocking skill is if they have a healthy backfield. I have to imagine, even for professional athletes, that having your main RB change has to affect how well you block. You never get really comfortable or establish chemistry because the guy you're trying to make holes for keeps changing.

    And not changing because of situational (3rd and short, redzone, etc) reasons, but because they keep being hurt and/or underperforming.

    I've said to people before: I don't ultimately care WHO is running for Detroit (although I'd prefer Best) this season so long as the guy who is starting in Week 1 is the same guy in week 17.

    Dennis Schwartz,  May 21, 2012 at 12:51 PM  

    It is interesting that given this information we are hearing pundits have reservations for Matt Stafford and deficiencies in the run game are not highlighted.

    Yes he can just through it up to Calvin, but there were countless times that he had to fit passes in the tightest windows.

    I for one came away more impressed that Stafford was able to excel given these limitations.

    Zac Snyder,  May 21, 2012 at 1:19 PM  

    I've repeatedly argued the Lions issues in the running game have more to do with the offensive line, particularly on the interior, but the local MSM continually keeps writing about the health of the running backs.

    Dennis Schwartz,  May 21, 2012 at 1:54 PM  

    @Mike I understand where your coming; with the exception of Touchdown Tommy we could rely on Barry to carry the load for all situations. You can make the same case for James Stewart.

    However, I think the model the Saints have with their running game is what the staff is shooting for. The ingredients are there; but as Zac says we do not have the lineman at the moment to replicate the production

    Mike,  May 21, 2012 at 3:10 PM  

    Are you talking about having 2 or 3 situational RB's or are you talking about simply plugging in whoever happens to be doing the best at the time.

    Because if you have 2 or 3 guys who all have their roles, and they're all getting snaps, you can still develop a chemistry with your line. They know if Morris comes in its for certain reasons, or Best or whomever.

    While I'd prefer a situation more like what you have with AP in Minnesota, I recognize the validity of having 2 or 3 guys you can swap in or out. I just think this past year's line would have benefited from more consistency in the backfield.

    But I also agree the backfield will greatly benefit from a better line.

    Dennis Schwartz,  May 21, 2012 at 4:03 PM  

    I do not want to discount the idea of chemistry as I think it plays an integral part; i.e. RBs trusting that a hole is there and OL trusting the RB to allow things to develop. However, chemistry can only get you so far.

    Raoila gets dominated at the point of attack way more often than not and it does not matter what scheme, be it zone or trap blocking it will be difficult to have a consistent running game when the defense can get penetration. Furthermore, it will be difficult to generate big plays as the defense does not need to get 7 people in the box to stop the run.

    I see value in Raoila in his calling out defenses and checking to the right protection as well as his work in the screen game.

    I have said this before but you have to almost view Pettigrew as a running back and associate most of his catches as runs because that is part of the Lions run game. Add in the smoke routes to Burleson and Titus.

    Flamekeeper_Ty,  May 21, 2012 at 4:55 PM  

    The big thing is that Best managed to be a weapon defenses had to account for, despite the early-season struggles of Backus, Sims, and Cherilus. Kevin Smith was incredibly effective the one game he was healthy . . .

    . . . and if reports are to be believed, Leshoure at 100% is a complete beast.

    I don't believe the Lions need to have a great run-blocking line to have an effective run game, nor do I believe they have to have a run game that's anything more than "effective."


    Flamekeeper_Ty,  May 21, 2012 at 5:01 PM  

    Yeah, they put the entire offense--and by the end of the season, team--on Stafford's shoulder(s) and he took them to the playoffs. That's incredibly impressive given his age.

    Imagine what he could do with a little more help . . .

    Flamekeeper_Ty,  May 21, 2012 at 5:36 PM  

    I agree, to a point. Establishing a consistent running style is important; you want your offensive line to *know* how to block your bread-and-butter plays. The ability to beat a team in the run game with pure execution is a huge advantage.

    That said, Leshoure is more versatile than people give him credit for, and Best is a better three-down back than people give him credit for. They different running styles but can fill mostly-similar roles.

    If both are 100%, I can see the Lions feeding whoever has the "hot hand," and/or whoever presents more of a matchup problem for the opponent.

    . . . basically, what I'm getting at here is that the Lions are probably going to use Best and Leshoure in a 60/40 split, and the consistency you're looking for will be rare. This may be a problem, or it may be the best way to utilize the talent at hand.

    We'll see.


    Flamekeeper_Ty,  May 21, 2012 at 5:38 PM  

    Great stuff here, fellas.

    Just wanted to note that I see Leshoure as a very similar runner to James Stewart. If Leshoure can stay healthier than Stewart did, he'll be everything the Lions don't currently have.


    Mike,  May 21, 2012 at 5:49 PM  

    I wasn't meaning to discount the need for quality blockers. Just emphasize the need for consistency and chemistry with the guys in the backfield and the guys doing the blocking.

    I come more from a hockey frame of mind where a lack of chemistry has very immediate results on the ice, and coaches bobble lines constantly searching for it.

    Also, I would never discount or ignore the contributions of Brandon "He is not a nice person" Pettigrew. I have a signed photo hanging in the other room as evidence of that.

    Dennis Schwartz,  May 22, 2012 at 9:20 AM  

    To his credit Jahvid looked very comfortable and patient early on; just a damn shame that he can't get past this concussion thing.

    @Ty content?!? Need I remind we have some Meet the Cubs pending :) j/k

    bigwalt2990,  June 10, 2012 at 8:46 AM  

    You implied (at least to me) why the Lions pass blocking is so good. They're in the shotgun more than any other team in the NFL. Plays they're not in the shotgun, they're in the pistol. And Pettigrew helps too....but then at the end of this article, you act as if the O-line is good because, well, they're just good.... It's the offensive scheming.

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