Healthy Lions could make run for a title
Allen Park — The intent was clear, and on paper the upgrades looked good, but because of injuries the Lions have not had the opportunity to see what their upgraded offense is capable of accomplishing.
That’s not an excuse, just a reality, and one most NFL teams have to deal with at some point during the season. Unfortunately, for the Lions, the adversity hit well before the season began.
The investment in the offensive line has been a clear focus for general manager Bob Quinn. He committed big money to bolstering the unit this year, luring free agents T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner to Detroit. But the best-laid plans were quickly derailed when left tackle Taylor Decker — the first-round pick from the year before — suffered a torn labrum during an OTA practice.
Quinn did what he could to patchwork the loss, shipping a future late-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams for former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson. But the change of scenery and scheme wasn’t enough to get the talented, but disappointing lineman’s career on track.
He’s since been waived.
And although it’s unreasonable to pin it exclusively on Decker’s absence, the Lions’ blocking struggled mightily the first half of the season without him. The team was among the league leader in sacks and quarterback pressure allowed, while the ground game hovered near the bottom of the league in most meaningful categories.
“Like we always say, whoever is out there, we’re going to work as hard as we can to be the best we can,” center Travis Swanson said. “It doesn’t matter who is out there, we’re constantly working on chemistry, not just with your starting five, but with everyone in the room because you never know what will happen.”
Swanson’s attitude is typical, and you need quality depth to succeed in the NFL, but there’s a reason most teams don’t rotate offensive linemen. There arguably not a position group where the talent drop-off from the starters to the backups is steeper.
Decker returned from a five-month absence last week against Cleveland, albeit on a pitch count, but as he did, Lang came down with concussion symptoms, sidelining the veteran guard for the second time this season and delaying the debut of the five-man combination Quinn envisioned.
Lang returned to the practice field this week and has been a full participant, suggesting he’s in line to return to action. And although Decker might still be somewhat limited, he didn’t suffer a setback against the Browns and scheduled to make his second straight start.
And it’s not just the offensive line.
The team also has all of its offensive weapons healthy. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who missed five games with a hamstring injury, and was limited to 11 snaps in his return last week, is no longer showing up on the injury report. Golden Tate, despite continuing to practice in a no-contact red jersey, is also no longer on the report with the nagging shoulder injury he suffered just before the team’s bye.
It’s almost unheard of this deep into the season, but the Lions aren’t missing an offensive starter. They’re not even missing a key contributor. Only third-string running back Dwayne Washington is missing practice right now, and to this point, his role and production is easily replaceable.
Compare this to last season, when the Lions were without their top two running backs, two starting offensive linemen and quarterback Matthew Stafford was nursing a broken finger on his throwing hand down the stretch.
This doesn’t mean everything is going to be perfect from here on out. Decker will understandably be rusty.
“I feel like every single day I’m getting better, I’m getting more comfortable right now,” he said. “But I didn’t get a training camp, I didn’t get a preseason, I didn’t get anything like that. I have to accelerate my learning curve to get comfortable.”
And chemistry up front isn’t going to happen overnight, even knowing you finally have your five best players on the field.
But the recently potent Lions offense, which has averaged more than 400 yards in the three games after the bye, has all the pieces in place to help the team make a late-season surge toward its first division title in 24 years.
“Yeah, I just don’t want to jinx ourselves, but we’re trending in that direction at least,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “So, it’s good to have those guys operating, moving in that direction, and we’ll see what happens come game time. But it certainly does put us in position to perhaps to play a little bit better here down the stretch.”