It’s exciting to have playmakers at the skill positions like Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. They get the headlines, they sell the jerseys, they fill the stadiums.
But, in the end, football is still about what happens in the trenches, and that’s what has to be so encouraging for the Detroit Lions coming off their 26-23 overtime victory last Sunday at Philadelphia.
Despite committing far too many penalties, the offensive and defensive lines were otherwise quite impressive. They helped keep the Lions in striking distance until Stafford and Johnson finally started to put it together for a fourth-quarter rally.
Let’s start with the offensive line. Stafford never was sacked and barely got hit, despite throwing 45 passes. The run game averaged 4.9 yards per carry – 138 yards, the most the Eagles have allowed this season, on 28 carries.
“We were physical,” offensive guard Rob Sims said. “We felt we set the tempo for the whole game. It was a good one for us. I think every week we’ve been getting a little bit better.”
Coach Jim Schwartz said the O-line’s effort was “key to the game.”
“I think that our offensive line probably played their best game of the year against a tough group,” Schwartz said. “That goes across the board, from Jeff Backus to Sims to (Dominic) Raiola to (Stephen) Peterman to Gos (Gosder Cherilus) to our tight ends.”
The Lions also have gotten a lift up front lately from rookie Riley Reiff, their first-round draft pick. Reiff is being used as a tight end – or extra tackle – in a jumbo package.
He played a total of nine snaps in the first four games, but that increased to 22 against the Eagles.
The Lions run a lot out of the package, but they can also max protect in the pass game.
“It’s a reflection of Riley and his talent level and what he’s done to earn his way onto the field,” Schwartz said of Reiff’s increased role.
Reiff’s emergence reduced tight end Brandon Pettigrew’s workload. That might be a good thing in the long run, perhaps helping Pettigrew improve his concentration level so he drops fewer passes.
The recent performance by Reiff hasn’t gone unnoticed by his veteran teammates.
“He was beasting,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “That young Reiff fella is for real. Watching him block and the feistiness he has, he’s running up on veterans on the Eagles’ D-line, pushing them around, shoving them around, picking up our running backs at the end of a play, making his blocks, throwing guys out the hole.
“I like having him out there. I was surprised a guy that young embraced the moment like he did.”
The front four on defense also embraced the moment at a time when they were being called overrated and underachieving.
The Lions held Philadelphia to a season-low 71 yards rushing on 29 attempts. LeSean McCoy, one of the league’s top running backs, finished with 22 yards on 14 carries. He had gained 123 yards on 23 attempts against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants two weeks earlier.
The defense also wreaked havoc on quarterback Michael Vick from start to finish. Two sacks early in overtime – one by end Cliff Avril, the other a combined effort by end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Nick Fairley – helped give the Lions field position to set up the winning field goal.
Tackle Ndamukong Suh, meanwhile, batted down a crucial third-down pass that could have gone for a big play late in regulation, giving the Lions the ball back and the chance to tie the game.
Schwartz called it “one of the biggest plays of the game.”
“We have a lot of confidence in those guys,” Schwartz said of the D-line. “We were able to get back on track.
“Kyle Vanden Bosch played an outstanding football game. Our line made a lot of plays in there, run and pass.
“We sacked him (Vick) three times, pressured him another eight where it was an incompletion or throwaway and then hit him on 15 plays. That’s a lot.
“There were a couple times I didn’t think he was going to get back up. He kept on getting back up. We have a lot of respect for him.”
Vick should have a lot of respect for the Lions’ defensive line, too. The question now is whether Fairley, Suh and the rest of the rotation can produce like that on a regular basis.
Regardless of the recent criticism, they’ve shown there’s talent and depth there, just not any consistency.
The Lions’ late rally the other day to end a three-game losing streak could be the turning point in their season.
But for that to actually happen, it’s going to take more than just the stars to shine. The Lions need these guys in the trenches, both sides of the ball, to make their own impact like they did in Philly.