Nobody ever accused me of cowardice, but, nobody ever nominated me for the Nobel Prize, either. So I will walk the plank, and embark upon touching a Lions fan’s nerve so sensitive that a root canal would seem like light comedy.
The Detroit Lions have to rebuild their offensive line.
There! I’ve finally said it. I’m outing myself!
I will take ownership of it. It will become my mantra. My mission. My “Raison d’etre,” if you will.
I’m all in, so let’s do this!
Oh my, how are we going to do this? Reality is a cast Iron bitch. What have I gotten myself into?
Truth be told, I don’t understand everything that I know about offensive line play. My bad?
Having little experience in evaluating offensive linemen, and having a jaundiced opinion when it comes to the Lions offensive line, I decided to consult an NFL insider who has intimate knowledge of “The Big Uglies.”
“Long Ball” has graciously joined us with his wit and wisdom. He must remain anonymous, as he’s still drawing a paycheck to provide his analysis to others.
I will italicize his insightful remarks.
Let’s review the current state of the Lions offensive line and the personnel.
Left Offensive Tackle
Jeff Backus has been the Lions starting left offensive tackle for 10 years. The much maligned tackle is an easy target for critics. Afterall, he has presided over the worst decade of football that the Lions have ever known.
The Backus haters are legion among the Lions fan base. They’ve been on him for years.
The widely held perception that Backus must go precipitated the great Russel Okung vs. Ndamakong Suh draft debate that fractured the Lions fan base.
It should be noted that Backus has given up only two sacks this year. The first, to Julius Peppers sent Stafford to Dr. Andrews. The second sack was given up to Albert Haynesworth.
Haynesworth? C’mon, man?
LB: “Believe it or not, I know where Midland, MI is (Backus’ Birthplace), even though he played HS ball in Norcross, GA.
Much was expected out of the first round choice from the Maize and Blue, but quite frankly Backus has been misplaced at LT.
He is not a “Dancing Bear” that the position requires, but since he is now in year four of his six year/$40 million contract, enough of that money should be off the books where he might be the answer at OG.
He is athletic enough to pull for sweeps and with his strength, pass-blocking in a phone booth might revive his career.”
Left Offensive Guard
The Lions tried a lot of options in the past few years, without finding a solution. Lions quarterbacks became crash test dummies while the Lions looked for an answer.
Enter Pete Carroll, who escaped the USC program ahead of the tsunami of NCAA grief to take the head coaching job for the Seattle Seahawks.
Carroll installed an offensive zone blocking scheme that Rob Sims could not adapt to. Sims was a square peg and became expendable.
Sims was traded to Detroit. First, Sims embraces the man-on-man blocking scheme that the Lions employ.
Second, Sims was a certain upgrade over the casting call tryouts that have stymied the Lions for years.
Sims has been a stabilizing influence on the “blind” side. The Lions were fortunate that Sims was a perfect fit.
LB: “This Buckeye standout would never work in a zone-blocking scheme as it negates his physical strength, but put him in a wrestling match out behind the BP gas station in Macedonia, OH (where Ohio State found him) and you’ve got something.
I would hang on to Sims, as he will be the veteran influence for the Lions new LT.”
Dominic Raiola is a 10 year veteran center. Raiola is a warrior, but seems to have lost a step. He routinely misses blitz pick-ups.
In a recent poll of NFL defensive players, Raiola was voted as one of the dirtiest players in the league.
LB: “Sorry, just not a Raiola fan—watched many a Nebraska game and the Hawaiian native overpowered lesser opponents (back in the Cornhusker Creampuff Scheduling era), but is neither a technician nor smart enough to handle complicated line calls.
The Lions need a true anchor for their OL.”
Right Offensive Guard
Stephen Peterman is the most penalized player on the second most penalized team in the NFL. Peterman was recently hit with a $10,000 fine for two dubious chop blocks in the loss to the Jets.
Peterman has done a credible job in pass protection. We will discuss his run blocking skills later.
LB: “One of Bill Parcells’ OL drafting mistakes, as Peterman of LSU was taken in the same year as Jacob Rogers of USC (out of football).
Peterman is a journeyman, works hard with a limited skill set, but is hardly even an acceptable back-up.”
Right Offensive Tackle
This was to be Gosder Cherilus’ make-or-break year. While his performance has improved, we can see that Cherilus has seemed to have found a plateau. Not a high plateau, either. He still gets beaten by the speed rush.
LB: The Haitian giant from Boston College has been a first round disappointment—I had him graded as a 2nd rounder, thinking he would require some developmental time, and was surprised when the Lions reached for him during that run of OL prospects, taking him over Jeff Otah.
Yes, he replaced George Foster as a rookie, but let’s face it—that was not the George Foster of the Big Red Machine! Gosder is still relatively young and I would not give up on him yet.”
The Lions are ranked 30th in rushing, and 8th in passing.
The Lions can’t run the rock.
Defensive penetration of the offensive line is the culprit. The Lions offensive line is unable to control the line of scrimmage or open holes for RB Jahvid Best. This is the case at every position along the line.
No push up front. Period.
Defenses never have to stack the box, as the Lions lack the ability to push them around.
I don’t know for certain, but I can speculate that the offensive line has as many lost yards due to penalties as they have rushing yards.
LB: “See my explanation below.”
What's The Solution?
The Lions two best offensive line back-ups are rookie tackle Jason Fox and Dylan Gandy, a young guard - center.
LB: “I dropped Fox’s draft grade due to immaturity—he walked out of the Combine and has other issues. If he “grows up,” he has the talent and footwork to man the LT position but I would certainly not put my team in the position of having to depend on him this early in his career.
I saw Gandy in a number of games at Texas Tech—he did not play center until his senior year. The fourth round draft choice from Pflugerville, TX (and no, the town was not named by Daffy Duck) is what he is, a smart solid back-up that is better served in a zone-blocking scheme.”
We need expert advice, so I am going to ask Longball for his unbiased opinion in a Q&A session.
Longball is not an expert on “The Big Uglies,” he is an authority. The best judge of elephant flesh on the planet.
MS: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Longball, and how you became so enamored of offensive linemen.
LB: “I have to get you away from that word “expert”—ex is a has-been and spurt is a drip under pressure—come to think of it, maybe I am one LOL!
Mike, I played OL in Texas HS football and had some colleges looking at me—what they saw was a big smart guy with limited athletic prowess, but a sneaky holding technique and knowledge of every legal (and illegal) blocking technique. In addition, I have coached the position and scouted prospects for a number of years.”
MS: OK, Longball, I shall write that on the palm of my hand. Sheesh!
MS: The Lions fans have been clamoring for talent on the offensive line. Is it really that bad?
LB: “No, it shows the Lions’ fans realize the importance of the unit—if you look back through the history of the NFL, the teams that had the “dynasty” label for any period of time had excellent offensive lines: the Browns of the 50’s, Packers of the 60’s, Dolphins and Steelers of the 70’s . . . OK, so I’m dating myself, Cowboys of the 90’s, Patriots of the 00’s.
The offensive line controls the game, allows the defense to rest (yes, it does take more energy to play defense, as it is reactionary)
I have often stated that I don’t care what kind of offensive scheme you run, single-wing, wishbone, pro-style, west coast, shot-gun, run and shoot . . . if my big guys whip your big guys, I’m gonna win!”
MS: Are wholesale changes needed on Detroit‘s offensive line?
LB: “I took your analysis of the current starters and expanded it a bit and believe you could replace one of your weak links (Peterman) with an existing starter (Backus) and concentrate on finding a center and left tackle. Now, I realize that is 40 percent of your existing OL, but you might be able to address one position with a trade or free agency and the other through the draft.”
MS: What are the challenges that a team faces when rebuilding an offensive line?
LB: “The challenges are significant—before free agency, developing an offensive line was a 2-3 year process, much like the developmental time afforded rookie quarterbacks in the day.
Think about it—you are choreographing a ballet of five 300+ lb giants, working in close proximity. The subtleties that are missing in today’s game are the non-verbal communications between tackle and guard or guard and center to ensure success—those communications are developed over time.”
MS: Well, ole buddy, the good news is that none of the Lions offensive linemen have stepped on the quarterback’s feet. Yet.
MS: Is it more productive to acquire offensive line talent via free agency and trades, or through the draft?
LB: “If you structure your salary cap right, it is always better to draft and develop your own OL over 2 to 3 years; however, in today’s game of instant gratification, that strategy is not always possible.
Free agency is always overpaying, but sometimes a necessary evil—in trades, you have to give up something and that something is normally draft choices, the future of your team.
It depends on your team situation, but if you can draft and let an offensive line learn to play together, you’re way ahead of the game.”
MS: It seems to take two-to-three years for drafted offensive linemen to become successful at the next level. Is this a valid assumption?
LB: “Yes, it is—really, it always was but is even more difficult today with so many colleges running the spread offense.
You mentioned the Lions’ run-blocking woes earlier—think about the run-blocking technique in the spread. It is much like blocking for a draw play—you allow the DL to take their pass-rush lanes and then body them in that direction and let the back pick the hole.
Offensive linemen have become so big that their butt and legs are not developed enough to allow them stay low to maintain leverage in a run-blocking position.
Yes, that’s my politically correct way of stating they are lazy!”
MS: And, now we see a proliferation of spread offenses in the NFL. This would lead us to believe that the offensive line techniques will undergo a metamorphosis, of sorts.
MS: In your unbiased opinion, how should the Lions proceed?
LB: “As previously stated, I would move Backus to RG—this would not only cover for his deficiencies at LT but provide a solid partner next to Cherilus, which might enhance his development.
I would leave Sims at LG and look for replacements at LT and OC. The players available through free agency or via trade are numerous and would require speculation, so I’ll give you some prospects in this year’s draft that I would consider.
The only center with a 1st round grade is Penn State’s Stefen Wisniewski, a smart technician that plays with excellent leverage. Another smart prospect I have seen quite a bit of is TCU’s Jake Kirkpatrick, who also plays with leverage and could be available in the 2nd or 3rd round.
I would stay away from Kristofer O’Dowd of USC and Mike Pouncey of Florida, but in later rounds would consider Tim Barnes of Missouri or Brandon Fusco of Slippery Rock.
Three LT prospects are worthy of late 1st round consideration: Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State, Anthony Castonzo of Boston College and DeMarcus Love of Arkansas. I believe all three will be solid pros, but I project after 2-3 years of NFL weight training on his lower body, Castonzo will be the best of the bunch.
Whew! How about that—you asked me what time it was and I just told you how to build a clock LOL!
Seriously Mike, I enjoyed the visit and would truly like to see the Lions continue their journey back to playoff contention in the NFL.
One of the hardest-hitting games I ever witnessed was Christmas Day 1970 at the Cotton Bowl when the Lions and Cowboys, two very similar and talented teams, slugged their way to a 5-0 verdict. The Lions appear to be on their way . . . now, if I can just figure out those Cowboys???”
MS: I’ve been very impressed with Castonzo, especially his quickness.
MS: Cuzzin Jerruh has a meltdown on his hands, for sure! The Lions will limp into Jerryland next week. You can bet that I’m lining up some fun angles for the “Penalty Bowl.”
MS: What happened to Gabe Carimi, and Nate Solder, Longball? Both these monsters looked to be destined for stardom at the next level.
LB: “Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin was everyone's pre-season darling (if that term can indeed be applied to a Big Ugly); however, he has struggled with his footwork against speed rushers and will probably be a right tackle at the next level. His performance against Adrian Clayborn of Iowa brought him back into late 1st/early 2nd round consideration.
It must be pointed out that Clayborn wore down as the game progressed, having to compete against the size and strength of both Carimi and John Moffitt, the left side of Wisconsin's OL.
Nate Solder of Colorado will have to be "coached up" at the next level, as he is a "waist bender" -- this is not uncommon for tall offensive linemen (Solder is 6'9"). Bending at the waist takes away the explosion or "punch" an offensive lineman can deliver, not to mention balance.
To deliver the blow on either pass or run blocking requires a coiled effect from the knees through the thighs up to the player's buttocks (the biggest muscles in the human body) -- that's the reason us "old school" coaches required power squats in weight training.
Solder has played in Colorado's spread offense and has been able to "body" or guide the DL in a direction on running plays and his ample wing-span helps in pass protection, as the QB gets rid of the ball in West Coast fashion. There will be more stringent requirements in the NFL.”
MS: Moffit is a beast! He has to have made a difference in Carimi’s performance. I’m also curious about Pitt’s Jason Pinkston. What are their prospects in the NFL?
LB: Jason Pinkston is truly a "Dancing Bear", as his footwork is excellent—I have him graded as the #1 OG prospect in this year's draft. Now don't get me wrong, he can play LT at the next level and play it well, but NFL talent evaluators will downgrade him due to his size (6'4", 305 lbs) as they like to see long wing-spans on the blind-side. In my opinion, he will be a solid LT, but an All-Pro at OG due to his footwork—it will all depend on the money, as LT is still the highest paying position on the OL. He should be drafted in the 2nd round.
John Moffitt is a beast, a true road-grader at 6'5" and 323 lbs; however, his footwork will limit him to teams emphasizing a power running scheme (ZBS teams need not apply). He has also benefitted from playing next to Carimi (just as Carimi has benefitted from playing next to him)—I have him ranked in the Top Ten of OG's, but that positioning only equates to a 6th or 7th round grade.
MS: Thanks, Longball, for participating! Your insights are a treasure, and I owe you big time!
I guess that I’ll be grading players in Texas high school teams films for the foreseeable future. Ah luvs dem announcers!
It’s worth it! I think. I hope. I pray.
Well, Lions fans, that’s the best informed opinion on the offensive line that you could possibly ask for. I have no doubt that the storm will rage unabated over what the Leos should do.
If there are any lingering questions, I’d be delighted to forward them to Longball for an answer that would be much better informed than mine.
Now, what do you think?
Mike Sudds is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Mike is also an analyst and correspondent for DraftTek.com.