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Decker: Lions' offensive line working to get in sync

More than any other position group on the football field, good offensive line play relies on five guys playing as one cohesive unit.

Practice time missed, like the cancellation of the on-field workouts in OTAs, can have an adverse effect on that unit probably more than any other on the football field.

If there are new players added to the mix via free agency or the draft, which is the situation in Detroit with the Lions starting a new right tackle and right guard this year, the missed time can really put an offensive line unit behind to start training camp.

"It's definitely a unique challenge," Lions left tackle Taylor Decker said on a Zoom call with reporters Thursday. "Especially given the fact that there's going to be some new young guys rotating through different groups and at different positions.

"But, it's a challenge every team is dealing with right now. The one thing we were able to do, and I think we did do, is do a great on our Zoom meetings. The coaches did a great job kind of with that virtual learning to get us as far ahead mentally as we possibly could.

"Every team is going through it and we're all presented with the same challenges, and it's going to be interesting to see once we get going on the field kind what everything looks like."

Veteran Halapoulivaati Vaitai was signed in free agency to be the new right tackle. He's been the swing tackle and plug in starter the last few years in Philadelphia. There's a group of players led by third-round draft pick Jonah Jackson vying for the starting right guard spot.

Decker, left guard Joe Dahl and center Frank Ragnow return as starters in Detroit from last year's offensive line, but getting comfortable with the new veteran players, and bringing along the youngsters, will be a challenge in a training camp that will feature only 14 padded practices at most.

The Lions ranked 16th in the NFL in Stats Inc.'s Protection Index last year, a statistic that measures offensive line play using different statistical elements like passing attempts and yards (excluding yards after the catch), sacks, quarterback knockdowns, hurries and penalties, including holding and false starts to form a numerical index assigned to each team.

Detroit's 43 sacks allowed – which it should be noted isn't entirely the fault of the offensive line – ranked 19th a year ago.

This offensive line unit knows all too well the importance of protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford. Detroit lost all eight games Stafford missed last season due to a back injury.

It's a unit that will also be asked to spearhead a run game offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell hopes can be resurgent in his second season. Some of the elements the Lions brought in upfront through free agency and the draft, along with the assets used in the draft to bolster the running back position, is a clear indication Bevell and the Lions plan to be much more balanced on offense in 2020.

But for that to happen, the guys upfront have to play well and lead the attack. That means the next five weeks are critical in seamlessly adopting the new veterans and helping the rookies along quickly.

Could there be a deterioration in offensive line play across the league with the missed spring and shortened training camp?

"I can't foreshadow what the performance level is going to be," Decker said. "It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. Interesting to see the learning curve for the younger guys and what does it mean for older guys who've been in it?

"I think we're going to see probably once we get practicing if there's any level of rustiness, but I really do believe that everyone was trying to do everything they possibly could to keep themselves ready."

The Lions have the talent at all levels of their offensive skills positions to be dangerous. But how quickly and how well the five guys upfront get acclimated will go a long way in deciding just how good the Lions' offense can be in 2020.

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