Lions O-line potential sky-high, just ask D’Andre Swift

No doubt, months away from opening day the Lions offensive line has the potential to be one of the league’s best. 

Of course, there’s a big if. Unlike last season, can they stay healthy?

Lions running back D’Andre Swift said it crosses his mind at least once a day about what could happen next season if the offensive line remains healthy.

The line is set up so that GM Brad Holmes doesn’t need to draft an offensive lineman to make it work.

While all five “starters” O-line starters never played in one game last season, they are healthy and, of course, optimism radiates. It’s that time of year.

“I said it last year, I’m going to stand on it. I think we can be the best in the league, I know we can be the best in the league. We just have to come out to work everyday,’’ left guard Jonah Jackson said.

Projected starters from last year will all return with left tackle Taylor Decker, left guard Jonah Jackson, center Frank Ragnow, right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and right tackle Penei Sewell (last year’s first-round draft pick).

Due to a slew of injuries they never played in one game together. Decker missed the first six games, Ragnow played in the first four and then hurt his foot and missed the rest of the season.

The good news is that Ragnow is back and participating in offseason workouts which started this week.

“I think being hurt, that was horrible. You just gain a lot of respect for dudes who have had to deal with injuries. It’s a gut-wrenching, man you really don’t realize. Obviously you’re still part of the team but you don’t really feel part of the team,’’ Ragnow said on Thursday.

“When you’re out on the field on Sundays and you’re in your gear, you’re like a gladiator. I’m walking out there in a T-shirt and shorts walking around, it’s a humbling feeling,’’ he added.

Sewell was one of last season’s highlights.He spent training camp at right tackle but when Decker went down before the first game he shifted to the left and did a respectable job.

“He looks the same. He’s a freak show. He’s still a freak show,’’ Ragnow said of Sewell. “Big, strong kid, great energy.”

Having the same guys return is huge.

“Obviously, we would love to all stay healthy, just off-the-field wise and mentally chemistry wise people don’t understand how big that is for offensive lines in particular,’’ Ragnow said. “You have to really know how these guys think, trust these guys and the relationships we’ve developed over five years with me and Taylor and the other guys trickling in here.’’

Five things to know as Lions face Vikings

It is Week 5 and the Lions are still looking for their first win. It’s been a bumpy start for first-year coach Dan Campbell who has his injury-decimated team showing flashes of good play but not nearly enough for a win.

Minnesota is typically a tough place to play but the Vikings (1-3) are coming off a 14-7 home loss to Cleveland. Still the Vikings are 10-point favorites.

A win would not fix everything for the Lions, but it certainly would help. 

“(A win) helps you get going. It helps you jump out of bed maybe a little bit better. And so, yeah, it does. That’s what this is about is getting that first win for us and getting a win. But at the end of the day, no matter what happens, you’ve got to put your best foot forward and we’ve got to go back to work no matter what,’’ Campbell said. “You’ve got to go back to work and find a way to improve. And you guys get tired of hearing me say this, but we are in a race to improve and it’s got to be that way every day, every week, every game.”

Five things to watch as the Lions face the Vikings:

1. Somehow going into Minnesota Campbell has been able to keep up the morale of this young squad.: “Morale’s been good. I mean, these guys did exactly what they needed to do was, ‘Let’s go back to work.’ And that’s a credit to the guys on this team, but I think even more importantly our veteran leadership. I think it’s all about – here’s what we know, you’ll never correct a problem if we don’t go back to work and those guys did that. That’s the first step and at least gives you a shot, so they have. It was up, the energy was up. We’ve had quite a few competitive periods. We try to mix them in every week, but I think we’ve had really more of them than we’ve done in a while just to – un-scouted looks, O versus D, critical fourth-and-2, third-and-2, red zone – we’ll have another red zone today and just dial it up and see who wins. And so, it’s been good. The energy’s been good and there again, it’s not about the energy, it’s about those little details that make you or break you in a game.”

2.  In terms of injuries, the good news is that tight end T.J. Hockenson (knee) and tackle Penei Sewell (ankle) have a chance to play on Sunday. Both had limited practice on Friday. DE Michael Brockers (shoulder) is expected to return. RB D’Andre Swift (groin), RB Jamaal Williams (hip) and OLB Trey Flowers (knee) are all listed as questionable. The Lions needed a pretty healthy team to have a chance at some wins and they definitely do not have that. Taylor Decker (hand) is still not ready and Romeo Okwara (Achilles) was the 12th player placed on injured reserve. Frank Ragnow was the 11th.

3. Much of the Vikings’ defensive game plan is built around their pass rush so it helps Minnesota that defensive end Danielle Hunter returns from injury. “Look, he’s an element that they need and I think he’s one of those pieces that makes them pretty dangerous because he’s one of those D-ends that I think plays the run as good as anybody and he’s an excellent pass rusher, too. So, he can transition from run to rush very quickly and run action stuff and he’s long. He’s a heck of an athlete, high motor, so it’s helped them,’’ Campbell said. This makes it much tougher on the Lions makeshift  offensive line which is missing Decker (hand) and Ragnow (turf toe). Good thing it looks like Sewell will be ready to go. Evan Brown will likely step in again at center.

4. So without key pieces, Campbell is putting together an offensive game plan that hopefully plays to their strengths.  “We’ve gone back and tried to really look at what we think we do well. We’re four weeks in now. ‘What do our guys do well? Knowing what we have up front moving forward and what they have, how do we help?’ So, the plan is catered that way somewhat and there again, we’ve got to play complementary football,’’ Campbell said. “We can’t get in one of these – like we’ve been, we can’t get in one of these, ‘We’re down and we’re in two-minute mode and we’re having to throw it every play and they know it, we know it.’ That doesn’t serve us well all of the time.” Actually, most of the time.

5. In the four losses, giving up chunk plays of 20 yards or longer has been a killer for Detroit’s defense. The cornerback crew is decimated with Jeff Okudah and Ifeatu Melifonwu on injured reserve, but the others have to step up. “That’s the one area that we’ve got to look at, and as coaches, too. ‘How do we get these guys in situations to where they’re not giving up these big plays?’ I was always told by Bill Parcells, ‘How many times do we’ve got to get hit in the face with a skunk before you smell it?’ And that’s a true statement,’’ Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “So, we have to do something also to be able to help these guys and we have done some things now, for the player and coach. The players have got to execute, the coach has got to put them in positions to where they can execute and be at their best.”  Sounds like a plan.

Prediction: Vikings 24, Lions 17.

Five keys to the Lions loss at Titans, 46-25

This was never going to be easy. The Detroit Lions’ defense has had trouble stopping the run and Titans’ running back is nearly unstoppable even against the best defense.

The Titans opened up the game in the second half, defeating the Lions 46-25 at Nashville on Sunday.

The Lions drop to 1-2 under interim coach Darrell Bevell and 5-9 overall. Still, even though it was a lopsided loss, there is a renewed sense of energy on the offense but two turnovers were costly.

“It can’t happen, one on the 1-yard line, the other in the red area, you can’t turn it over against good teams and have a chance to win. I thought we were moving the ball well on good, long sustained drives, you turn it over and you don’t give yourselves a chance,’’ Bevell told WJR.

The defense continues its struggles like it has most of the season, giving up six touchdowns and 463 yards.  “We knew it was going to be a huge challenge, great running back (Derrick Henry) that they have, hard to stop, physical, he also has speed. We knew that was going to be a challenge and it turned out that way,” Bevell said.

Five keys to the Lions’ loss:

1. Two turnovers in the red zone were critical. D’Andre Swift tried to leap over the pile from the 2-yard line on third down in the second quarter, had the ball punched out and the Titans recovered. Also T.J. Hockenson had a third-down catch, fumbled it and Titans recovered early in the third quarter.

2. The Lions defense just couldn’t stop running back Derrick Henry who finished with 24 carries for 147 yards and a touchdown. Overall the Titans had 195 rushing yards which is nearly 40 yards more than their average per game. 

3. Since the defense couldn’t stop the run game, things opened up for quarterback Ryan Tannehill who was 21 of 27 for 273 yards, three passing and two rushing touchdowns. Late in the third, on a third-and-11, Tannehill completed a 20-yard pass to tight end Anthony Firkser for a first down. It was a defining play of the quarter and the game. The Titans converted 9 of 11 third-down attempts. That’s an incredible 82 percent.

4. Matthew Stafford, who was playing with injured ribs and was uncertain to go until Sunday morning, played like there was nothing wrong with him at all. We all knew he was tough, he proved it on Sunday completing 22 of 32 passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and a 102.6 rating. “It was a gutty performance by him,’’ Bevell said. He was pulled with nine minutes left after taking a big hit the previous drive. Chase Daniel stepped in and handled it well but it was too late to pull off a comeback with the Lions down by 21 points.

5. The Lions offensive line, which was without center Frank Ragnow (fracture throat), protected Stafford fairly well. He was not sacked but took a few big hits. Joe Dahl, who started at center, had never snapped to Stafford in a game but it didn’t really show. There was a miscue in the fourth quarter on a snap but surprisingly there weren’t more. Then Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who started at right tackle, couldn’t finish the game due to a concussion. 

NEXT UP: Tampa Bay Bucs (9-5) at Lions (5-9) at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 26. The Bucs topped the Falcons, 31-27, on Sunday.