Detroit Lions film review: Penei Sewell shines in debut, plenty of work still to be done

Detroit Free Press

Penei Sewell had a doubly-difficult task in his NFL debut Sunday, switching positions from right to left tackle a few days before the Detroit Lions’ season-opener against the San Francisco 49ers and drawing the primary assignment on Nick Bosa, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Lions coach Dan Campbell said he was encouraged by Sewell’s performance, and he did not close the door on keeping the rookie at left tackle when Taylor Decker returns from finger surgery next month.

“I thought he did a good job,” Campbell said Monday. “I thought he held his own. There was a couple of plays in there where he got beat, Bosa got him on a bull (rush) on one, but I thought he did a good job. He went over there and he fought and he held up for us. That was very encouraging to see. When you get in games like that and you kind of forget about your left tackle, that’s a good thing.”

NFL Network analyst Joe Thomas, a six-time first-team All-Pro left tackle for the Cleveland Browns, was even more effusive in his praise.

“I thought he was awesome,” Thomas said in a video conference Tuesday. “With Sewell, even though he had missed all last season (as an opt-out), he looked outstanding. I was blown away watching his college film. I think he’s going to be a fantastic player and I think he’s got potential to be multiple all-pro type player and he’s certainly lived up to that bill so far in his first game.”

Sewell’s performance was far from perfect. He allowed one sack to Bosa, two more quarterback hits (by Bosa) and another pressure (by Bosa).

But after taking a deeper dive into his play for my Tuesday film review, I came away thinking the Lions will have a very good lineman in a very short period of time.

My analysis:

The good

The youngest player in NFL history ever to start a game at left tackle, Sewell has the tools to be an elite run blocker. He is a premium athlete for his size, 6 feet 5 and 331 pounds, and gets to the second level with ease, which is a must in the Lions’ zone blocking scheme.

The Lions ran the bulk of their rushing attack behind Sewell, left guard Jonah Jackson, and center Frank Ragnow against the 49ers, and Sewell had key blocks on each of their three explosive rushing plays. He came off a double-team block on a defensive lineman to make a second-level block on top linebacker Fred Warner on Jamaal Williams’ 20-yard run late in the first quarter. He had another downfield block on linebacker Dre Greenlaw on D’Andre Swift’s 16-yard run. And one play later, he overpowered Zach Kerr to free Swift up for a 15-yard gain.

Sewell has an exceptionally quick kick in pass protection, and fared mostly well under difficult circumstances Sunday. The Lions fell behind four touchdowns in the second half and at one point called 26 straight pass plays (then after a run, followed with 16 more designed passes). That’s an impossible situation for an offensive lineman, when pass rushers don’t have to worry about the run, but Sewell — with some help from his team — survived it well.

The Lions gave Sewell chip help on his rusher on a dozen plays, with eight of those coming in the second half. Sewell allowed a sack and a pressure in the fourth quarter, but was mostly sharp with his pass blocks.

Goff got rid of the ball in less than 2 seconds on a number of occasions, which helped Sewell and the rest of the offensive line. But the Lions trusted Sewell alone on an island against Samson Ebukam on a deep ball to Quintez Cephus after an injury stoppage, and Sewell won that rep with ease.

One other thing to like about Sewell: He’s not afraid to finish plays. The No. 7 pick of the draft has a little a mean streak to him, blocking till the end of the whistle, which is not always the case with high draft pick rookies.

“There’s this fine line in practice that we all kind of have to battle because at the end of the day we’re going against our own team,” Ragnow said. “It was cool to see, I guess, it translates (for him from) college. I haven’t really watched much of his college tape, but it’s good to see the plays that you thought in practice that you stop and you hold up your guy because that’s your guy, (in the game) he was able to finish.”

The bad

As good a run blocker as Sewell is, he can be more consistent. In 22 run-block snaps Sunday, I gave him minus grades on three rushing plays. (My very unscientific grading system was awarding a simple plus or minus for each play, based on whether Sewell won his block, and if it was a draw, the potential impact on the play. He graded out 86% positive overall, in my book.)

Once, Sewell got caught taking a wide first step, which allowed Joey Bose to knife inside and throw Swift for a 4-yard loss. On two other plays, Sewell did not finish his blocks, allowing second-level defenders to make tackles short of a first down.

In pass protection, Sewell got beat on an inside move by Bosa on his first true pass block snap of the game (he pulled as if was the lead blocker on a toss on the Lions’ first pass, when Goff bootlegged right and found T.J. Hockenson for a big gain) but seemed to struggle most with bull rushes.

Perhaps, strength is an issue; Sewell is strong of course, but at 20 years old, he still has some grown-man strength to gain. But I suspect his struggles were more about technique than anything, and likely can be fixed. On the couple occasions he lost bull rushes, including Bosa’s sack, Sewell seemed to leave his chest too open, and when the defender struck him, he lost his balance.

Those are minor issues, and for a rookie playing his first real game in 20 months — after playing right tackle all of training camp – I would have expected them to be more pronounced. Still, Sewell said he left the game with plenty to work on, and that’s a fair assessment.

“To me, I got to win every rep,” he said. “I got to win, just not only for myself but for the team so we can get that dub (victory) in the end.”

The future

Sewell played better for longer stretches Sunday that he did in any of the Lions’ three preseason games. I believe his future is as one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and I’ve gone back and forth about when he should make that transition.

On one hand, if Sewell is going to be the Lions’ left tackle for the next decade-plus, why delay the inevitable? Let him play the position now, so he does not experience growing pains there when the Lions are closer to contention.

On the other, Taylor Decker is the Lions’ best left tackle right now – he’s more consistent than Sewell, more refined in his technique and more experienced against the bag of tricks left tackles see on a weekly basis – and the Lions are trying to win games this season within the framework of building for the future. Decker has made it clear he wants to play left tackle, and it’s probably best that one of the Lions’ veteran leaders isn’t disgruntled in Year 1 of his four-year contract.

Campbell did not indicate which way he’s leaning, but simply being open to keeping Sewell at left tackle, a few days after Sewell said the position is Decker’s when he returns, is big in itself.

“I would love to entertain that (idea of what to do), but, man, we’re so far away from that right now we’re just (thinking about) how do we put the best lineup out there for Green Bay right now?” Campbell said. “We’ll worry about that when Decker comes back, but right now I know that we feel good with Sewell being at left and we asked him to move over there and he accepted the challenge, did well, and we’re going to need another good performance out of him because these guys, they’ve got some good players over there as well, good rushers.”

Sewell’s play over the next three weeks could make the Lions’ decision easy, one way or another. And if he goes back to right tackle and performs well this year, the Lions may be able to push his eventual move even further down the road.

Just guessing, I think Sewell goes back to right tackle when Decker returns and the Lions revisit this discussion in the offseason. But Thomas said he would keep Sewell at left tackle and move Decker, who also is a very good lineman, to wherever he feels most comfortable, left guard or right tackle.

“If you ask me,” Thomas said, “I would keep him right where he is cause he played great in that first game.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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