The hits keep coming for the Detroit Lions’ beleaguered offensive line.
Rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell is dealing with an ankle injury that will limit him in practice this week and has left his availability for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings uncertain.
“He’s a little banged up,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said before practice Wednesday. “We’ll see where he’s at. He’ll probably be limited today if not out and then we’ll go from there.”
Sewell, the No. 7 pick of April’s draft, has started all four games at left tackle in place of Taylor Decker, who underwent surgery on his left hand days before the Lions’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Decker has not played a snap this season, and Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow suffered a turf toe injury in last week’s loss to the Chicago Bears that will keep him out at least the next three games.
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The Lions placed Ragnow on injured reserve Wednesday; Decker has been on IR since Sept. 11.
Evan Brown is expected to start in Ragnow’s place at center this week, while offensive line coach Hank Fraley said the team is considering multiple options to replace Sewell, if the rookie cannot play.
Will Holden is the Lions’ top backup offensive tackle, though right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai could shift to tackle — the position he played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl four years ago — with Logan Stenberg at guard. Stenberg has played as the Lions’ sixth offensive lineman most of the season.
Swing tackle Matt Nelson has been the Lions’ starting right tackle, with Sewell shifting to the left side, in Decker’s absence.
“You would like to say it’s like riding a bike, right? Super Bowl champ left tackle,” Fraley said of Vaitai. “He’s a professional. If I asked him to go wherever, he’ll do it, which is good. Any of these guys would go play wherever you wanted them to. I’ve got a great room and they’re always up for a challenge, so we’re ready to go.”
However the Lions configure their offensive line this week, they figure to be tested by one of the NFL’s top defenses.
The Vikings (1-3) rank fourth in sacks per pass attempt, are led by defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has five sacks on the season, and have an aggressive, defensive-minded head coach in Mike Zimmer.
“We’re going to be smart with what we do gameplan-wise to try to help our guys out,” Campbell said. “And not just them, but everybody. We’ve gone back and really tried to look at what 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.”
The Lions (0-4) have suffered a slew of key injuries this season that have impacted several position groups beyond the offensive line.
Top cornerback Jeff Okudah was lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 1, and his backup, rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu, was placed on IR with a quadriceps injury a week later.
Romeo Okwara, who led the Lions with 10 sacks in 2020, tore his Achilles tendon last week and is out for the season, and his pass-rush partner, Trey Flowers, has missed the past two games with knee and shoulder injuries.
Tyrell Williams, the Lions’ projected No. 1 receiver, also has been out since Week 1 with a brain injury, and backup defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand has not played this season because of a groin injury he suffered in training camp.
The losses of Okudah, Melifonwu and Okwara, in particular, could have longer-term implications for a Lions team in the early stages of a yearslong rebuild.
All three were expected to be part of the organization’s future, and are now missing valuable developmental time and/or are saddled with one of the toughest injuries to recover from.
Campbell said he does not see the Lions’ injury problems as a setback, but rather an opportunity for other young players to develop and show they can play a key role in the organization going forward.
“(Derrick) Barnes is still coming along, (Alim) McNeil’s coming. Levi (Onwuzurike), he’s got to get better but he’s continuing to grow,” Campbell said. “Jerry Jacobs is going to continue to grow. Bobby (Price is) still going to be able to grow and help us in other areas. Sewell, there again, we’ll see where he’s at, but I feel like we still have enough young guys that we are developing.
“I don’t feel like it’s a setback. I mean, we still got plenty of young bucks that are out there, that are helping us, contributing and they’re growing every time they get to play and the reps that they’re getting.”