Camp notes: Offensive line remains a question mark for Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The biggest factor – besides major injuries – that could potentially ruin the Detroit Lions’ chances at a bounce-back season is their offensive line.

They’ve got the skill players, but do they have the blocking to allow those playmakers to excel?

It’s still early – Day 10 of training camp, the preseason opener coming up Friday against the New York Jets at Ford Field – but here’s one of those playmakers’ initial impressions:

“Everybody comments about our offensive line, but one thing I can say is they’re keeping Matt clean,” receiver Nate Burleson said, referring to quarterback Matthew Stafford. “He hasn’t got touched much this camp. People might say, ‘Well, it’s just practice.’ That might be true, but what you practice is usually how you play.

“If they’re dropping back and keeping these fierce animals that we have on the D-line from getting their hands on Matt on a consistent basis then that means they’re going to do a great job protecting him this year.”

The line returns two starters – center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims – while having to replace left tackle Jeff Backus (retired), right guard Stephen Peterman (released) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus (signed with Indianapolis).

Riley Reiff (first-round pick in 2012) has taken over for Backus while right guard Dylan Gandy (journeyman in fifth season with Detroit) and right tackle Jason Fox (often-injured fourth-round pick in 2010) have gotten the most first-team reps lately at the other two spots.

Asked following Tuesday’s practice how this line compares to last year’s more experienced unit, Burleson answered, “What I’ve noticed, they’re bigger, a little bit stronger. Even Dom (Raiola) has put on a little bit of weight. He’s playing at a very powerful level. He’s lifted a couple guys up off their feet when we put pads on. For what it’s worth, that’s a big deal.”

Running back Reggie Bush, in his first year with the Lions after signing as an unrestricted free agent, thinks a more balanced attack could be to the benefit of his new linemen.
In the last two years, the Lions lead the league with 1,406 pass attempts and rank second-to-last in rushing attempts with 747.

“When you have a solid run game that complements the passing game, with the threat of the passing game we have here, it makes life a lot easier for the offensive linemen,” Bush said.

“Now they’re not just on their heels all game and we’re not throwing the ball 50, 60 times a game. Now we’re mixing it up and forcing defenses to be honest. They can’t just play the pass all day.”

Much of the run game’s success, though, depends on the effectiveness of the line, right?

“It’s not all on them,” Bush said. “A lot of it has to do with the running back. Our technique has to be good, our steps, our eyes, our vision have to be in the right place.

“The running back has the ability to move the defense wherever he wants just by his steps or where his eyes are or his angles, stuff like that.”

At the same time, the running back can’t do it alone. He needs those guys up front opening holes, just like Stafford needs them to protect for him.

How this line continues to develop throughout the preseason – and, more importantly, the regular season – is going to be an ongoing theme and source for concern.
Safety Louis Delmas, on the plan to continue sitting out practices to protect his ailing knees for the regular season and whether he’ll play in the preseason opener: “It’s keeping me healthy. The most important thing is the first game of the season. I definitely think I’ll be ready. Physically, I feel like I can go out there and play on Friday. This is the best I’ve felt in two years.”

Delmas, on whether the secondary has gone from a weak link to a possible strength with the roster makeover: “You’re right, the last couple years the secondary hasn’t been what we’re supposed to be. This year, as you all can see, we take pride in each other and we take pride in our whole defense. No disrespect to any of my past players, I think this might be the best group that I’ve played with.”

Delmas, on the addition of young cornerbacks such as Darius Slay (second-round pick, 2013) and Bill Bentley (third round, 2012): “Feisty and fast and exciting. All of our new picks, they’re learners. They know how to adapt to the situation. They don’t talk back. They just want to play ball. That reminds me of myself when I came in here. I know I talked a lot but I still sat down and listened.”

Delmas, on whether he will change his reckless-abandon style for health reasons: “Once you get out there in the game, them bullets start flying, you just go back to what you know. If I can make a play and make it look good, I’m going to make it look good. If I can punish somebody, I’m going to punish somebody. That’s always been the way I’ve played the game. That’s the only way I know how.”

Bush, on whether he’ll play Friday: “My first time being a Detroit Lion, I’d like to get out there, get the feel for things. I definitely need that. It’s a new group of guys, new team for me. I’d like to get the feel for us as a team, see where we are, I’d like to see where I’m at.”

Bush, on his surprisingly high number of dropped passes: “That’s part of the growing pains of camp. I don’t think anybody in the NFL right now is in midseason form. Everybody’s still fine-tuning kinks. That’s what preseason games are for. I dropped some balls. I dropped a wide-open ball today. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to make us stronger in the end.”