MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: Offensive line held its own in joint practice

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Day 1 of the joint practices between the Lions and Steelers was a good day for the offensive line.

LATROBE, Pa. – It was Day 1 of the Detroit Lions traveling training-camp practice against the Pittsburgh Steelers Tuesday at Saint Vincent College, and Day 218 of the focus the offensive line has faced as the Lions’ most scrutinized unit since the end of the 2015 season.

A lot has happened throughout the franchise – from the upper tier of the front office to the bottom rungs of the roster -- since the Lions beat the Bears on Jan. 3 to close out the 2015 season. But in terms of roster building, the spotlight has shone brightest on the offensive line.

No unit on the team is under more pressure, or facing a greater mandate to improve, than the offensive line.

Day 1 of the joint practices between the Lions and Steelers was a good day for the offensive line. For the most part, it held up well in the one-on-one position drills against the Steelers’ pass-rushers. And it closed out the day in good style, giving Matthew Stafford time to throw in a 16-play drive that ended in a four-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Cole Wick.

It was just a practice day. There should be no declarations that the building process can be deemed a success, or that the offensive line would have issues the rest of the year.

But it was a good day in the progression leading up to the real test – the start of the regular season at Indianapolis on Sept. 11.

“I think they’re only going to get better,” Stafford said after practice. “That’s what this time is for. You go through the whole spring, and yeah, you can be stepping to the right guy, but you’ve got to block them.

“That’s what pads are for. That’s what this time of year is for, is to build that cohesion. And I’m doing everything I can to try and help them. They’re doing a heck of a job.”

Two numbers illustrate how massive the rebuilding program of the offensive line is, and how the unit’s make up has changed. The numbers:

14: That’s how many seasons center Dominic Raiola had played for the Lions when he retired after the 2014 season. Raiola has been brought back to the coaching staff this year as part of the strength and conditioning program.

10: That’s how many NFL seasons the five projected starters on the offensive line have played going into the start of the season. They are: right tackle Riley Reiff (four), right guard Larry Warford (three), center Travis Swanson (two), left guard Laken Tomlinson (one), left tackle Taylor Decker (rookie, first season).

That can be taken two ways. It’s a lot of youth, obviously. And it’s a lot of promise, with three first-round draft picks (Decker, Tomlinson and Reiff) and two thirds (Swanson and Warford).

My early take: There is still a lot to prove, but early indications are that the line will be better with Reiff significantly upgrading right tackle, Warford in better condition and primed to play to the level of his 2013 rookie season and Tomlinson and Swanson benefitting from a full season of starting experience.

Decker faces the same question as most rookies. He has to play to his potential as a first-round draft pick.

They got a good test Tuesday because they were facing a team that ranked third in the league last year with 48 sacks and plays a 3-4 base defense. The offensive line has been going against the Lions’ 4-3 defense throughout the offseason workouts and in training camp.

“You’re facing a completely different defense than we’ve been facing,” Swanson said. “It takes some adjusting. The last series -- I think we had a 16-play drive – was a big one. It was good to get the ball in.

“You know schematically what the defense is going to be. It’s one thing to look at it, and it’s one thing to actually go against it. It’s different for us, but it’s good. We see the stout defenses multiple times throughout the year.

“We’re just trying to build the best chemistry we can, regardless of who’s out there on the field. We are a very close group. We can only get closer.”