Tackle LaAdrian Waddle saw his first extended NFL action in injury relief of both Riley Reiff and Corey Hilliard. The rookie held his own, and his sound play should translate into a larger role.
During the preseason, it was Waddle and not tight end Joseph Fauria who was the one undrafted rookie expected to make a real dent on the Lions roster. I even wrote about why should start at right tackle back in August.
While Fauria danced his way into the national consciousness, Waddle quietly waited on the sidelines. He fluctuated between being active and inactive on game days, a status largely dependent on starting right tackle Jason Fox's health.
Waddle finally got his chance on Sunday. When left tackle Riley Reiff departed with a hamstring issue, the rookie from Texas Tech finally saw his first real NFL action.
He acquitted himself pretty well. Considering he was facing talented Bengals in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, I thought Waddle fared more than acceptably.
Here's a play showing his handiwork at left tackle in place of Reiff in the third quarter.
Waddle starts the play by kick-sliding backwards and inside just a bit. His goal on the play is to increase the distance from Michael Johnson (No. 93) to Matthew Stafford to give the quarterback time to look down the field.
Johnson eats up the cushion quickly and jolts Waddle with a powerful engaging move. It's a great setup by Johnson, because it allows him to quickly tell if he can bull rush the tackle backwards. If he cannot, he's in strong position to shed the block with a quick spin or arm rip and shoot to the outside.
Waddle is initially bested on the play, and Johnson pushes him with good pad level and powerful momentum. But Waddle is able to put a strong right foot behind him and stop the bull rush. It reaches a point just before Stafford releases the ball where Johnson is standing straight up and Waddle has seized the pad level.
Tackles are going to get beat on plays; NFL pass-rushers are in the league for good reason. The ability to adjust mid-play and stay alive even when bested is a quality that good tackles must have. LaAdrian Waddle showed that on this play.
On the right side, Waddle started with a bang. His first play in relief of Hilliard was the 50-yard touchdown strike from Stafford to Calvin Johnson. The play was a designed rolling pocket to the right, indicating the team had immediate confidence in his ability.
Here's another play on the right side. This time he is matched up against Carlos Dunlap (No. 96) in an obvious passing down. It's 2nd-and-11 and Waddle is isolated; the running back is on the other side of the formation and there is no tight end next to Waddle.
Dunlap decides to try and get around the edge and turn the corner. Waddle does an excellent job squaring himself to Dunlap. Notice he is perfectly parallel to Stafford and the balance in his crouching stance.
Waddle isn't quite quick enough with his next step to his right, and Dunlap does indeed gain the corner on him. Once again, he demonstrates the ability to recover quickly and powerfully.
He uses a strong push with both arms on Dunlap's inside shoulder to force Dunlap deeper. While the defender has enough momentum to reach out at Stafford, Waddle has given his quarterback room to step forward.
This goes down in the stat books as a pressure allowed by Waddle. Because Dunlap's hand grazed Stafford, some might even chart it as a hit. But Waddle wins on this play, thanks in part to an alert quarterback and rock-solid blocking by right guard Larry Warford on defensive tackle Domata Peko (the engaged duo in front of Waddle).
I believe this is a critical reason why Waddle can succeed right away at right tackle. Many times, rookie linemen are thrust into the fray without a couple of advantages that the Lions have for him.
He has a veteran quarterback with good pocket awareness. Stafford isn't the most agile quarterback in the league, but he's smart and doesn't need a lot of room to deliver the football.
Secondly, the Lions have a very good guard next to him in fellow rookie Larry Warford. Even on his worst day, which was last Sunday, Warford has outplayed reasonable expectations for a third-round pick.
In addition, the Lions have an accomplished tight end in Brandon Pettigrew. They also have a pair of running backs who are well-versed in pass protection in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. If Waddle struggles a little, they have the ways and means to help him. Not all rookies are that blessed.
This Sunday against Dallas represents a great opportunity for LaAdrian Waddle to seize a starting offensive tackle job and never look back. He showed enough against the Bengals to deserve a prolonged audition.
Just as the Detroit Lions found longtime line stalwarts Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola together in the 2001 NFL Draft, the franchise appears to have found another duo with legit long-term potential together in 2013 with Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle.