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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?