Allen Park — The Detroit Lions couldn’t be more thrilled with the results of having their starting offensive tackle tandem together on the field for the first time last week.
The impact was clear in the 16-16 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the Lions ran for a season-high 239 yards, while Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell combined to allow zero sacks and one quarterback pressure.
But while the Steelers defense presents a formidable challenge, Decker and Sewell will be facing a taller task this Sunday, slowing Cleveland’s edge rushing tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Both former No. 1 overall picks (Clowney in 2014, Garrett in 2017), the pair have combined for five Pro Bowl selections and 91 sacks in their careers. And Garrett is currently pacing the league with 13 sacks this season.
“You’ve gotta be sound,” Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley said. “They make you play sound football, those guys out there. You’ve got to be sound in your (pass) sets, you’ve got to be patient and we got to take the fight to those guys because they like to take the fight to you. We’ve got to make sure we’re the aggressor out there, run and pass, and every time we get a chance, lean on those guys and hit those guys.”
Decker will see more of Garrett, who lines up greater than 85% of the time across from left tackle, while the rookie Sewell will draw a heavy dose of Clowney.
Sewell is one week removed from doing an impressive job in his first regular-season start at right tackle, largely handling Steelers All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt.
Of course, the Lions will do what they can to help both tackles, while knowing there’s a limit to how much extra attention they can provide either side of the offensive line.
“When you’ve got multiple on the edges, it’s tough to just single out one guy,” Fraley said. “Sometimes, when there’s only one, you can slide your protection one way or the other more often, or put some help over there. You know, the big hat falls on these two edge guys over here, Decker and Penei.”
With Garrett leading the way, the Browns are tied for the NFL lead with 29 sacks and rank seventh in quarterback pressure, affecting the pocket 27% of snaps. By having such high-level individual talent on the edges, they’re able to achieve that pass-rushing success without relying on the blitz. Through 10 games, they rank in the bottom 10 in blitz rate, sending an extra rusher just 21.4% of the time.
Prior to Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, undrafted rookie cornerback Mark Gilbert hadn’t played any meaningful defensive snaps this season.
Signed off the Steelers practice squad a month earlier, Gilbert made his Lions’ debut the previous game, a 44-6 blowout loss to the Eagles, primarily playing on special teams until getting some garbage-time reps on defense late in the contest.
But against his former team, Gilbert was pressed into action in the second half of a tight game when starter and fellow rookie Jerry Jacobs suffered a groin injury.
The Steelers wasted little time attacking the inexperienced Gilbert, only to find a player up for the challenge. He knocked away one pass in the fourth quarter, and when he got beat on a deep ball in overtime, he made up for it immediately, recovering to force a fumble on the play that the Lions recovered.
“Gilbert was not afraid,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Gilbert was going in there to compete and I think it says a lot.”
Gilbert brought a more intriguing resume to Detroit than most mid-season additions. At Duke University, he forced his way on to the NFL’s radar after intercepting six passes as a sophomore in 2017. But a severe hip injury cost him most of the next two seasons. He returned in 2020, intercepting a pass in his first game back before another injury, this time to his foot, ended another campaign.
Assuming he’s able to stay healthy, the ball skills and confidence could make him a hidden gem.
“Well, this guy, he looks like a corner, plays like a corner, he’s done it, and so you love the potential,” Campbell said. “Now, it’s just, ‘OK, how does he respond when he gets thrown to the wolves?’ And that was our first taste of it and I thought he responded nicely.
“… Honestly, that’s what you’re looking for,” Campbell continued. “You want to know a guy is going to go in there and not play scared. Like he’s just, ‘You may get me, but every play it’s going to be hard.’ Those are the things you don’t know until you put him in those situations, so that’s a good sign.”
In addition to quarterback Jared Goff’s absence from the practice field on Wednesday, the Lions were also without outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee), running back Jermar Jefferson (knee/ankle) and offensive tackle Matt Nelson. All three players exited Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, with only Flowers able to return and finish the contest.
Safety Tracy Walker also left without returning after suffering a concussion, but he’s rapidly progressing through the return-to-play protocol, participating on a limited basis on Wednesday.
Outside linebacker Austin Bryant (shoulder) and running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams were also limited.
Bryant and Williams didn’t play against the Steelers. It was the second consecutive absence for the starting running back. With Williams sidelined, Swift handled a career-high 33 carries. Despite the shoulder injury, Campbell didn’t seem too concerned about his dual-threat star.
““He’s good,” Campbell said before practice. “We’ll limit him a little bit, but he’s good.”
We’re running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.