By: Will Burchfield
If the offensive line really is a strength for the Lions, it finally has a chance to prove it.
Barring anything unexpected in the next few days, the five-man unit that inspired confidence in the offseason will take the field on Sunday for the first time this year.
“I don’t want to jinx ourselves, but we’re trending in that direction at least,” Jim Caldwell said on Thursday. “It’s good to have those guys operating, moving in that direction, and we’ll see what happens come game time. But it certainly does put us in position to perhaps play a little bit better here down the stretch.”
General manager Bob Quinn has invested heavily in the offensive line in his first two years in Detroit. He drafted left tackle Taylor Decker in the first round in 2016 and made a pair of big-ticket free agent signings in right tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang in 2017.
Add in the developing duo of center Travis Swanson and guard Graham Glasgow, and the Lions’ O-line was a point of envy around the league as the 2017 season approached.
Then Decker went down with a shoulder injury during OTAs, knocking him out for the first eight games of the year. While the 2016 All-Rookie worked his way back to health, Lang endured some injuries of his own, first a strained back and then a concussion.
It was both cruel and poetic that when Decker made his season debut last week versus the Browns, Lang was relegated to the sideline.
But Lang returned to practice this week and will play on Sunday versus the Bears. So will the quartet of Decker, Glasgow, Swanson and Wagner. Finally, the Lions are in position to reap the rewards of a rebuilt unit up front.
“As you go through a season, a lot of times you have injuries and you get less healthy along the way. To be able to look up and get more healthy, that’s a benefit,” said offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. “When you have a full complement, whenever that is, that’s good for the team. That’s good for the offense and hopefully we’ll see improvement there.”
The Lions certainly felt Decker’s absence. Matthew Stafford was sacked 26 times in eight games as fill-ins Greg Robinson, Emmett Cleary and Brian Mihalik offered varying degrees of effectiveness. Robinson, in particular, was a liability.
On the flip side, Mihalik was much better.
“It’s one of those things that I think is kind of the nature of the business. You have to be able to find a way,” said Caldwell. “We have a staff here that does a very good job of teaching. They don’t blink at a challenge, and you’re presented with challenges all the time in this business.”
Decker split time with Mihalik in his season debut and held up well in a number of matchups with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. Caldwell won’t reveal his plan for Decker moving forward, but with a game and three weeks of practice under his belt entering Sunday’s game, it’s safe to assume Decker will be a full go.
It took 11 weeks, but the offensive line has arrived in earnest. Time for that unit to prove its worth.