Niyo: Healthy again, Lions’ offensive line ready to play ‘bully’ ball

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions have had dirt kicked in their face for years. For the better part of the last six decades, really.

So it’s a bit jarring to hear them now talking about being the schoolyard bully. And to be fair, Hank Fraley, the Lions’ offensive line coach, was a bit hesitant to do so Monday when he met with the local media before practice.

“I want to be careful how I might say some of this stuff,” he said, smiling. “There’s stuff I might say in my room that I really don’t want you guys to hear.”

But soon after, we heard quite a bit about what the Lions think they can be this season, as Fraley fielded a question about his vision for Detroit’s offensive line and how that might stack up with some of the NFL’s best over the years.

“It’s kind of that mentality that you’re going to put somebody’s face in the mud and just keep it there and step on it,” he said, speaking as both the Lions’ longest-tenured assistant coach and a guy who played 10 NFL seasons as an offensive lineman. “Why not be that guy? ‘Be the bully on the field, men. Be that bully.’”

Based on what we’ve all seen through nearly a month of training camp, including two days of joint practices last week in Indianapolis and Saturday’s preseason win over the Colts, there’s ample reason to be bullish about that possibility.

And believe it or not, it’s a fair question to be asking about this Lions team, even coming off a 3-13-1 finish in 2021 and four straight seasons in the NFC North cellar. Why can’t they be the bully for once? Why can’t this finally be a team that runs the ball whenever it wants to, and especially when it needs to? Why can’t the Lions, who’ve invested a bunch of draft capital and salary-cap space in their offensive line, finally make good on a long-promised plan to control games on the ground?

‘Go eat in the middle’

That was the wide-eyed hope last year in Dan Campbell’s first season as head coach, just as it was in the latter half of Matt Patricia’s tenure in Detroit. But it’s feeling more like the expectation now, with all five starters on the line returning healthy this fall: Frank Ragnow in the middle, Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai at guard and Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell at tackle.

And while it’s easy to make too much of preseason football in the NFL, it wasn’t hard to see what has the Lions’ coaching staff so excited in the opener against Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. A dominant effort up front paved the way on a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown for the Lions’ offensive starters in their only drive of the night.

They followed that up with an impressive showing against the Colts’ starters in two days of joint practices last week — “It was good to see those guys go eat in the middle,” Campbell said — and then watched as the second- and third-stringers mostly manhandled the opposition in Saturday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Lions rushed for 174 yards at a healthy clip (5.3 yards per carry) against a Colts defense that had performed well a week earlier against Buffalo.

“I think it speaks volumes to me,” Campbell said afterward.

Added Decker: “I think it says that we have set a standard and everybody in that room wanted to live up to that standard.”

More: Wojo: Jared Goff and Lions offense know exactly how much is on the line

Now then, that’s the standard optimism we’ve come to expect before the regular season kicks off. And I realize this is all just white noise to Lions fans who’ve been fooled before. After all, it has been nearly a quarter-century since the Lions finished a season even in the top half of the league in rushing yardage, let alone at a level that’d qualify as bully ball.

That most recent high-water mark was way back in 1998, which, not coincidentally, was Barry Sanders’ last season in shoulder pads. But last season, the Lions finished 19th in rushing yardage — and 13th in yards per carry — despite not playing a single snap with the projected starting five together up front. Decker missed the first half of the season with a fractured finger, while Ragnow was lost for the season in Week 4.

“We felt like that was gonna be one of our strengths last year,” Campbell said, “and so to have all of those guys back working together now, it gives you a lot of confidence.”

It might even give this team an identity, which is something the Lions haven’t had in several years, quite frankly. Not since the 2014 team went 11-5 and made the playoffs thanks to a punishing defensive front that was built around Ndamukong Suh.

‘The sky’s the limit’

This team — and specifically this offensive line — certainly wouldn’t mind if it developed a similarly-nasty reputation. Or at least one that has other teams grumbling about the Lions’ tenacity. And their grit, as Campbell keeps referencing, in words and T-shirts and hats.

“It’s really, when you walk off the field, what are others saying?” Fraley explained. “People might say. ‘They were physical. We were in a fight.’”

And “without being selfish,” Fraley added, his goal is for the Lions’ line to be drawn right on the edge, where “a team preparing for us (will say), ‘Hey, we better watch these guys because they’re going to toe the line.’ Meaning not anything dirty, but how do you walk that line being physical (and) nasty?

“When I think about (offensive) lines like that, that are talked about, you hear other defenses say, ‘Man, watch out or you’re going to get hit 20 yards downfield. There’s going to be linemen around the pile.’ I would love to hear that.”

They all hear the talk, of course. The hype about this offensive line being the strength of this Lions team.

“With today’s media, you can’t get away from it, right?” Fraley said. “I mean, it’s everywhere.”

Pro Football Focus recently ranked Detroit’s starting five as the third-best starting group in the league behind only Philadelphia and Cleveland. Fraley’s crew is aware of the pressure that comes from having three first-round picks on the line, too, as well as three of the six highest average salaries on the entire roster.

But they’re not shying away from it. Decker, entering his seventh NFL season, says without hesitation, “This is the most talented line I’ve been a part of, 100%,” Jackson adds, “I know we can be the best in the league.” And Sewell insists, “the sky’s the limit — only we control how far we can go.”

Yet that’s the point, really. How well this unit controls the line of scrimmage will go a long way in deciding this team’s fate — and their own reputation.

“Just because people are saying it” doesn’t mean anything, Fraley said. “You’ve gotta go do it.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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