By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – When most think of the Detroit Lions offense, they consider Matthew Stafford’s powerful arm, Calvin Johnson’s otherworldly athleticism or Reggie Bush’s blazing speed. They might not think much about the offensive line, the guys in the middle, pushing and clawing to keep defenders away from Stafford, out of Bush’s way.
So far, though, the young line that so many doubted before the season has proved vital to the Lions’ attack.
Anchored by 13-year veteran center Dominic Raiola and eight-year veteran left guard Rob Sims, the offensive line received an infusion of new blood for 2013. Rookie Larry Warford now starts at right guard, second-year guy Riley Reiff holds down the fort at left tackle, and the duo that battled for the right tackle spot had played in one game in 2012 between them.
It did not sound like a recipe for success, but preparation that started in the weight room appears to have forged a strong group, emotionally and physically.
“When you’ve got guys that can basically lift everything we have in our weight room, they can push around another human being, try to protect Matt,” wide receiver Nate Burleson said. “The key is keeping your quarterback clean, and they’ve been doing a great job of that. I think what hasn’t been talked about a lot is what they’ve done to get to this point.
“You don’t just piece together a group of guys and everything works. It’s lifting in the weight room every day together and then spending time together, going on weekly dinners. They’re doing a lot of things that make them one of the most cohesive groups on the team.”
Not surprisingly, it all comes back to Raiola. The longest tenured Lion and one of the most venerable NFL players period on the roster, Raiola’s steadying influence and impressive example is exactly what the Lions needed.
“They follow Dom everywhere he goes, and that’s a good way,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said. “If you have a veteran guy who’s doing things the right way, grab his coattail. When he’s in the meeting room, be in there with him. When he’s lifting weights, try lifting weights with him. You see whatever he’s eating, try to eat the same thing. And you get a routine. That’s how you develop routines, and these young guys, they’re really taking hold of that, and they’re growing tremendously.”
For Burleson, strength stands out as an unheralded aspect of the line. Sure, people talk about size of Detroit’s offensive linemen, but the time and effort those players spend in the weight room impresses Burleson.
Again, it all seems to come back to Raiola.
“All the offensive linemen, they’re following him, and he’s trying to set the bar higher and higher, he’s trying to lift as much weight as he can, and he makes it competitive,” Burleson said. “He’s talking trash, so he’s getting the juices following between the guys on the offensive line, and before you know it, they’re exhausted and they’re walking out of the weight room with their shirts drenched in sweat and just got done getting work done.
“It starts with Dom, and it trickles down, and that’s why he’s one of, I guess the untitled captains of this team,” Burleson added.
Raiola is more than happy to set an example, but he also appreciates the younger guys for their preparation.
“To a young guy, that’s a big credit because that’s something that’s learned, how to prepare,” Raiola said. “I think it’s a credit to our coaches in our room and the older guys In our room that they’re prepared that way, so I’m extremely proud of how they prepare. That’s where it starts.”
Those young linemen, and the group as a whole, have executed in games well in addition to preparing well. The unit works to erase the early doubts held by those outside the program, and the young players on the line play a large role.
“They’re awesome,” Raiola said. “They’re so willing to learn and get better. You can’t ask for a better group. From when we started this thing, we were supposed to be – there was I guess a perception of what we were supposed to be.
“We’ve been working to break that perception, and we’re getting there,” Raiola said. “We’re getting there.”