The Detroit Lions put up 27 points Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, so it seems harsh to blame the offense for the seven-point defeat.
Two young offensive linemen, though, are getting attention because of their continued struggles in the first three weeks of the season. Left guard Laken Tomlinson and left tackle Taylor Decker were beaten multiple times by the Packers defense, either putting Matthew Stafford under pressure or blowing up running plays.
At the end of the 2015 season, it was obvious that Detroit’s offensive line was a major problem. The Lions finished last in the league in rushing, and only left tackle Riley Reiff and guard Manny Ramirez played particularly well. When Ramirez left as a free agent - he signed with the Bears before retiring - it seemed clear that a total rebuild was needed.
Oddly, though, it didn’t happen. The Lions selected Decker from Ohio State in the first round, center Graham Glasgow (Michigan) in the third and Washington State guard Joe Dahl in the fifth, but didn’t target linemen in free agency. The only major signing was veteran guard Geoff Schwartz, and he didn’t make the final roster.
In another surprising move, Jim Caldwell immediately installed Decker at left tackle; the toughest position on the offensive line, and one where a rookie is guaranteed to struggle. Reiff moved to the right side, and the interior was made up of three players who had below-average seasons in 2015 - Tomlinson, center Travis Swanson and right guard Larry Warford.
The decision to keep Warford made sense - he looked like a young star as a rookie in 2013 before dealing with injuries in the next two seasons. Caldwell and his staff also counted on the fact that Swanson and Tomlinson would improve in their second year as regulars.
Two of the three gambles have paid off - Warford has regained much of his early form and Swanson has improved after his training-camp work with his predecessor, Dominic Raiola.
Tomlinson, though, still looks lost at times, and Decker has been overwhelmed at times both as a pass blocker and on running plays. With them playing next to each other, that has allowed defenses to cave in one side of Detroit’s offense.
That’s become a major problem in the running game, especially with Ameer Abdullah sidelined by a foot injury. Theo Riddick gained nine yards on 10 carries, and need to break tackles to do that well.
“We’ve just got to block better for him,” Caldwell said. “We had some guys just got knocked out of there physically, and that created some problems for us. We didn’t get him going or give him an alley. That was execution up front.”
Caldwell didn’t want to single out Tomlinson or Decker, but said they both needed to play more consistently.
“They’re both young guys that are playing there, and I think it has been up and down,” he said. “There were some really good stretches of football between those two guys. There were times where Laken did a real good job and times where Taylor did an excellent job. There were times that there were problems, but that’s expected. It’s going to happen.”
“They are going to have some bad plays, but consistency is what matters, and I think they will both get to a point where they are operating at a high, high level of consistency.”
If the Lions are going to make something out of this season, that point needs to come sooner rather than later.