| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions are 1-3 at the bye. Is there any reason for optimism?
Detroit Lions don’t seem intent on making a midseason coaching change, so what improvements, if any, can save the 2020 season? (Filmed Oct. 5, 2020)
Hank Fraley has played or coached offensive line most of his life, so he’s well aware of the perception when it comes to quarterback sacks.
“I mean, if you’re just looking at numbers, they get attributed to the O-line so we need to make sure we do our part and give up none,” Fraley said Monday. “We definitely can do our part even better.”
The Detroit Lions have allowed 12 sacks in four games this season, and while the blame for at least five of those falls somewhere other than the offensive line, Fraley’s unit has taken the pressure it has allowed in the first quarter of the season personal.
Matthew Stafford, coming off consecutive seasons with back injuries, is on pace to be sacked a career-high 48 times, and the Lions have allowed sacks on 8.76% of their pass attempts as a team. That number ranks 23rd in the NFL and is their highest total since their winless season of 2008.
ESPN’s advanced analytics paint a slightly rosier picture of the Lions’ pass protection, crediting the Lions with wins on 61% of their pass block snaps, a number that ranked 15th in the league through four weeks.
“I always just like to keep any quarterback behind us, especially Matthew Stafford, keep him up, keep him settled in the pocket, not having him ever have to worry about somebody breathing down his neck,” Fraley said. “And even if the ball gets thrown and there’s a late hand grazing his back or something, we don’t want ever to have that.”
With the Lions about to enter the second quarter of the season, and with guard Joe Dahl perhaps returning soon from a groin injury, it felt like a good time to put the offensive line under an all-22 film review.
The unit has been one of the strengths of the entire team so far, with left tackle Taylor Decker playing arguably the best football of his career. But the Lions still are struggling to run the ball effectively — they rank 24th in the league in rushing — and keep Stafford upright.
The Lions do not have a single player who ranks in the top 10 of ESPN’s positional pass-block or run-block win rate, so Fraley’s charge that the line “definitely can do our part even better” rings true.
But looking specifically at sacks allowed, the line hardly seems to blame for the pressure Stafford has been under.
Eight of the Lions’ 12 sacks allowed have come in obvious passing situations by down and distance, and five have come late in games or at the end of halves with the Lions trailing by double-digits on the scoreboard.
“We want zero every game, so however it is, it’s a team game and we definitely can do our part and our share in it,” Fraley said.
Of the five sacks allowed that were not attributable to the offensive line, I charted two as pure coverage sacks, gave one to tight end T.J. Hockenson, and put two more on Stafford’s ledger for stepping up in the pocket — and essentially into a defender’s arms — when his first read was not open.
That does not include the rollout sack Stafford took in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears, when his failure to throw the ball away cost the Lions valuable field position and contributed to Matt Prater’s missed field goal. I don’t think that sack necessarily belongs on the offensive line, but the Lions rolled the protection to the right on the play, and Akiem Hicks easily beat Jonah Jackson to take Stafford down.
That leaves six sacks, in my estimation, that fall on the offensive line, a respectable number through four games, especially when you consider the holes the Lions were sometimes playing from and the pass rushers — Hicks, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan and Za’Darius and Preston Smith — they were playing against.
Top free-agent addition Hal Vaitai has given up three sacks this year, including two against the Cardinals when he made his season debut at right guard after playing exclusively tackle in training camp.
Jordan Phillips overpowered Vaitai for one sack, but the other two were clearly blown assignments or a product of miscommunication. On a third-and-4 play against the Saints, David Onyemata split Vaitai and center Frank Ragnow for a sack when Ragnow came off his block to pick up a stunting pass rusher. Counting the number of rushers, Vaitai appears to be responsible for Phillips.
Former Lions linebacker Devon Kennard also had an easy sack in Week 3 when Vaitai slid to his right, leaving Kennard an open lane to rush through.
Fraley called Ragnow “one of the best communicators” in the NFL, and while he did not mention Vaitai by name, he acknowledged the line has “made our fair share of (mistakes) just maybe not switching off a stunt the right way.”
“I’ll be honest, some of them have been bonehead mistakes,” Fraley said. “It happens. I mean, you would love to laugh about it. It’s easier to laugh on a win, I guess, but some have kind of cost us a chance to keep the sticks going. And the one thing that you see from the O-line and what the guys are is they care. Like, they’ll come off the sideline and be like, ‘Coach, that was on me.’ And I’m like, ‘Yep.’ And you want to keep them positive, too, because you need them to play the next play. And all’s I can ask is we learn from it, and I think we’ve learned from our mistakes and seeing things.”
In addition to Vaitai’s three sacks allowed, I assigned blame to Tyrell Crosby for one sack by the Packers, Ragnow for one sack by the Cardinals (though no one blocked Peters on the play, so that was another clear miscommunication), and split the blame for another between Crosby and Jackson. Za’Darius Smith beat Jackson off the line on the third sack, and Crosby tripped over what appeared to be Smith’s feet, which gave two Packers an easy sack on third-and-11 in the fourth quarter.
Ragnow said before last week’s bye that “there’s a lot (the offensive line) can get better at,” and while that’s absolutely the case, pass protection has not been the issue the numbers make it appear to be.
“We’re 1-3, so we look at the big picture, I guess, and we’re not where we want to be,” Fraley said. “We’ve done a lot of good things, but just a couple of lapses that have gotten us have cost us either moving the sticks, keeping third down drives alive, or any of that, and maybe keeping us from scoring. And I feel like as an offense, we can score every time we get the ball or every time we go out there we can score on that possession, so for us as a unit, we just want to make sure we’re playing more consistent when there is crunch times, or call it crucial downs, cause you never know what down or play’s going to affect the outcome of the game.”