Allen Park — The Lions were up 7-0 and generally feeling great about their opening drive to start the 2022 regular season Sunday at Ford Field.
But Hank Fraley, the team’s offensive line coach, was still agitated on the sideline, frustrated by the back-to-back false-start penalties in the red zone that nearly derailed Detroit’s touchdown march.
Logan Stenberg, the third-year pro making his first NFL start, was the culprit on both flags, and “you can’t imagine how pissed off I was, right?,” Fraley said.
Yet even before he could deliver that message to Stenberg, Fraley said he got an earful himself from center Frank Ragnow and left tackle Taylor Decker.
“They’re coming off, and I’m just eyeing Logan — I’m eyeing him — but the vets running by me were like, ‘Let him go,’” Fraley said Wednesday, shortly before the Lions hit the practice field to begin preparing for Sunday’s game against Washington. “And that’s what you’ve got to love about the group. Because they’re like, ‘That’s our guy. Let him go.’”
So he did, more or less. When Stenberg made it to the sideline, he wasn’t met with a tirade. (“All I told him was, ‘Don’t let it happen again,’’ Fraley said.) And the unspoken message that reinforced was nearly as important, I’d argue. It’s the one we keep referencing when we talk about Dan Campbell and his coaching staff that is loaded with former NFL players.
“I can’t say I’ve never been in their shoes,” Fraley said. “I’ve been there.”
Indeed, he has. And if you ask Fraley, who describes himself now as a “a try-hard guy that got a chance to play for 11 years” in the NFL, about his own starting debut more than 20 years ago, he’ll begin with a horror story.
It was the Philadelphia Eagles’ season opener in 2001 and Fraley, who’d spent his entire rookie season inactive after being claimed off the Steelers’ practice squad, was suddenly thrust into a starting role when center Bubba Miller fractured his ankle in the final preseason game. On the second snap of the game against St. Louis, Fraley “shorted” the center snap to quarterback Donovan McNabb, resulting in a fumble at the Eagles’ own 14-yard line. Two plays later, the Rams scored to go up 7-0 in a game that they’d ultimately win with an overtime field goal. And the way Fraley recalls it, he didn’t walk to the sideline, he ran.
“It couldn’t go any worse,” he said, laughing.
But it did get better. Eagles coach Andy Reid didn’t embarrass him in the moment. And Fraley went on to start every game for the Eagles the next four seasons as they made four consecutive trips to the NFC championship game. No one’s predicting anything like that for Stenberg at the moment, but Fraley’s message to the former fourth-round pick out of Kentucky is rooted in that experience.
“I take myself back to my first-ever start and there was a lot I had to clean up,” Fraley said. “So he’ll clean it up and we’ll go from there. I’m excited for him: He gets to write another chapter in his book.”
Maybe several more, so long as Stenberg can stay healthy, which apparently is no guarantee with this team. Stenberg is in the lineup now because starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai is out indefinitely — and probably for the season after undergoing back surgery Tuesday in Dallas. Tommy Kraemer, who appeared to be Vaitai’s backup coming out of the preseason, also is sidelined by a back injury. And as for other starters, both Ragnow (groin) and Decker (calf) were listed as non-participants in practice Wednesday, while left guard Jonah Jackson (finger) was limited.
So the expected strength of this Lions team — that $50 million offensive line — now finds itself hobbling out of the gate. Still, that group did pave the way for a career-best rushing performance from D’Andre Swift (15 carries, 144 yards) against the Eagles — Detroit ranks fourth in the league in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders— and allowed just one sack.
“Well, look, we have a lot of faith in the O-line — it all starts there,” Campbell said.
And if it’s true that you’re only as strong as the weakest link, well, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Stenberg knows what that means, too. He’d played just four regular-season snaps on offense in his first two years in the league, and found himself squarely on the bubble to make the Lions’ 53-man roster after an up-and-down preseason.
But Sunday in the home opener he was out there for nearly 70 snaps, holding his own former All-Pro Fletcher Cox & Co. On Monday, he already was diving into the video cut-ups to scout his next matchup against Washington’s Daron Payne, as well as Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat.
“He knows he’s got an unbelievable opportunity,” Campbell said. “You can’t ask for anything better right now — it’s his for the taking. And if he wants to continue to help us and continue to improve, that would be great for him, great for us.”
‘Did his thing’
And even if it wasn’t great on tape in Week 1 — aside from the penalties, Stenberg also allowed the lone sack among four quarterback pressures in 41 pass-block snaps, per Pro Football Focus — it was important to get that first start under his belt.
“A lot of hard work coming to fruition, so it was good to do it,” said Stenberg, who was able to share the moment with his wife — they got married in April — and both their families Sunday. “It’s all about comfort. Once I got settled down and got comfortable, I played a really good game. So I was excited to see that on film.”
Even the part where was a little too excited and got caught trying to anticipate the snap count.
“I just wanted to run off the ball and kill somebody, you know what I mean?” Stenberg said, smiling.
The tackle lining up next to him certainly knew what he meant.
“I was like, ‘(Expletive) that, bro: Everyone else is going to get on you, but it’s your first (game),” Penei Sewell said. “Man, he just came in and did his thing and didn’t let the moment get too big for him. Those two false starts, to be honest, I kinda smiled at him. I was like, ‘Bro, you’re ready to get off the ball, that’s all I see!’ … But just for him to bounce back from that, he’s going to be money this season.”
That’s what the Lions are counting on, anyway.