How ‘Jeopardy!’ is motivating finally-healthy Detroit Lions offensive line

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions offensive linemen are constantly in competition with one another.

Whether that’s on the field in pass- or run-block situations, or in the weight room trying to one-up others in the position group, offensive line coach Hank Fraley says each of his players has a fierce desire to be the best.

He said that desire holds true in the classroom as well.

“I give those guys tests all the time and none of those guys don’t want to be on the leaderboard,” he said earlier this month after minicamp. “They might try to act like they don’t care, but they’re always trying to grind and be top three.”

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Fraley said quarterback Jared Goff needs to know his protectors can identify and properly block any defensive front, and the spotlight of getting up in front of the team to diagnose a defense and explain the necessary checks can be a different type of pressure.

The goal, Fraley says, is to have his players learn without even realizing they’re studying. Instead, make it fun, appeal to their competitive drive and keep it light so it’s something they actively look forward to.

“One game we give them is like Kahoots, they’ll do ‘Jeopardy!’ with plays, different looks, all that stuff,” he said. “Sometimes we will throw something funny up there if they’re not a movie guy they get mad.

“It keeps them on their toes so they have to be ready, I mean it could be anybody from a rookie having to get up and say this is how we’re blocking that to a Frank Ragnow saying this is how we’re going to ID it and block it and we try to hold everyone accountable.”

The offensive line has been touted as one of the team’s greatest strengths all offseason.

From Pro Football Focus ranking it in its “Tier 1” at the third-best in the NFL, to the staff  bringing back the same players from last year’s group  — which speaks to the confidence the organization has in this unit — expectations for the offense have reached a new level.

But Fraley knows a unit is only as good as its production, so he’s not getting everybody fitted for gold jackets just yet.

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“Our goal is to go out there and compete,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of talk about strength and all that but it’s still waiting to be seen and we gotta go out there and prove it.

“But can we be part of the team that helps carry us? Yes, we can be a piece of the puzzle.”

It starts on the left side, with veteran tackle Taylor Decker, who was a part-time participant in organized team activities and minicamp as he continues to rehab a foot injury. Coach Dan Campbell said would be able to play in games right now if it were the season.

Decker missed the first chunk of last season with a broken finger as well, appearing in just nine games.

To his right, Jonah Jackson, who was named to the Pro Bowl as a second-year player in 2021 and pegged earlier this week by PFF as one of the top-10 breakout candidates.

In the middle is 2020 All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, who played just four games a season ago after injuring his toe.

“It’s always good to see those guys out there,” Fraley said on one of the team’s final days of minicamp. “It’s been a while since the five of those guys have even taken a rep together.”

The last two who make up the projected starting five are Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who did not allow a single sack in 557 snaps a season ago, and 2021 first-round pick Penei Sewell.

Sewell bounced between left and right tackle a season ago and while it did cause some additional struggles on top of the normal learning curve for a rookie, he said last month  it was beneficial overall.

“I don’t like to be boxed to one thing,” said Sewell. “I kind of like the challenge. Whatever challenge they give me, I’m going to take it on.

“It helped me improve my muscles and my muscle memory — kind of just flipping the switch.”

While on paper the unit should be a force, last year showed injuries can quickly de-rail plans. That’s why when Fraley tries to keep the entire group engaged.

“Those five guys run out together, they can be a special group but we’re a long way from that — we haven’t played a game or taken a snap,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter which five it is, ’cause we have 14 guys in the room. They push each other daily.”

“Their mindset I always like to tell them should be, ‘I’m unseating one of those guys in front of me and I want to be a starter.’

“You don’t have to tell anybody about it, but that should be the mindset, that’s your goal and I think that’s what we’ve tried to establish here.”

Contact Tony Garcia at apgarcia@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.

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