With just seven games left in the season, Detroit's upper management and coaching staff should start thinking about starting to phase in some of their newer players into more permanent roles on the team.
The Lions have had some success bringing in rookies for starters. Ryan Broyles is a clear example as he has excelled since taking over for the injured Nate Burleson. Broyles has 13 receptions in four games for 146 yards and two touchdowns, but the Lions still need help offensively, especially on the offensive line.
Enter offensive tackle, Riley Reiff.
Reiff, a rookie out of Iowa, has been added more as an "eligible receiver" on running plays than to pass block at his natural tackle position, but if he is to become a complete player and help the Lions out at left tackle (where Jeff Backus is currently), he will need to see more time on the field.
Coach Jim Schwarz has to start playing Reiff more often instead of continuing to start left tackle Jeff Backus.
Backus has two false starts and two holding penalties this year, and his pass blocking has been either hit or miss. When Backus has gone up against NFC North opponents like Jared Allen, his pass blocking has been nothing short of abysmal.
One would be hard pressed to find a lineman in Detroit that has been beat off of the ball more times than Backus. A substantial amount of these times where Backus gets off the ball late have led to a quarterback hurry, knockdown or sack.
Because of this, quarterback Matthew Stafford has had little or no time to throw the ball on some passing downs because Jeff Backus gets beaten right off of the snap.
This is where Reiff can become increasingly valuable to the Lions' offensive line. Reiff's run-blocking is decent, but his Iowa Hawkeyes were dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense last year (137.7 yards per game) while the passing offense was third in the Big Ten (234.8 yards per game).
Reiff's ability to protect his quarterback is something that Jeff Backus just doesn't have at 35 years of age.
Unfortunately for Reiff, the Lions signed the iron man, Backus, to a two-year extension this past March (via an Adam Schefter tweet):
OT Jeff Backus returns to the Detroit Lions on a two-year, $10 million deal.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 18, 2012
This contract is ultimately meaningless in the long run because the left tackle position is Reiff's to seize.
This season may be one of learning for the rookie out of Iowa, but if the Lions are not in a position to make the playoffs come January then look for Reiff to start getting more reps at left tackle and less at "tight end" on run-blocking plays.