Niyo: As Penei Sewell finds his voice, the Lions find a leader

Detroit News

Allen Park — One of the first times I noticed that Penei Sewell’s voice really was starting to carry for the Lions came in a quiet moment last October.

It was at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in the aftermath of an embarrassing 29-0 loss to the Patriots that head coach Dan Campbell called “rock bottom.” Detroit was 1-4 and headed into the bye week after another mistake-filled outing, one that was doomed by a couple of costly turnovers from Jared Goff and an NFL-record 0-for-6 effort on fourth-down conversions against Matt Patricia’s defense.

And that’s where Sewell started in a somber visitors’ locker room, talking about the coaches’ “trust” that had been betrayed by the players with all those short-yardage failures.

“So it’s my job — and everybody else in that O-line room — to use this bye week to reflect and bounce back,” the second-year right tackle said, before finishing with a sharp summation. “This is unacceptable.”

It was, and while the Lions’ tailspin didn’t exactly end there — they’d lose two more after the bye — Campbell also was right: Better days were ahead as his team rallied to win eight of its last 10 games.

Louder days, too, as the team’s talented young core began to find its collective voice — and perhaps no one more so than Sewell, the former top-10 pick who would go on to make his first Pro Bowl last winter.

“Yeah, as the season went along, I just kind of felt like my body was trying to say something,” Sewell said Thursday, as the Lions wrapped up another week of offseason workouts in Allen Park. “And I didn’t know whether it was (trying to say something) to myself, to a specific person or to the whole team.”

But, it was one of his veteran teammates, Goff, who let him know just after Thanksgiving that there was an audience waiting.

“He came up to me and was like, ‘Man, you gotta talk,’” Sewell said, recalling a conversation the two had before the Lions hosted Jacksonville at Ford Field in early December. “So, I just kind of stepped into that role and let my heart speak and just ran from there.”

That passion registered, clearly. And even from a distance, Lions fans probably could see it, as Sewell assumed a regular role in breaking down the team huddle in pregame warmups. They could even hear it in weekly mic’d-up segments the Lions’ video department puts together, offering a behind-the-scenes gameday recap.

There was Sewell shortly before kickoff against the Vikings, exhorting his teammates to “punch these (expletive) in the mouth, play after play after play.” (The 325-pound tackle even had his own mic drop at the end of that one, with a game-clinching, third-down catch.)

And there he was again before that prime-time finale at Lambeau Field, screaming, “From Day 1, we knew we gotta run through these (expletive) … Lay this (expletive) on the line for your brothers today. I’ve got y’all from the first play to the last! From the first play to the last!”

If you ask his teammates, they’ll tell you Sewell’s a natural for that role, given his exuberant nature and personality.

“When you love what you do, it’s easy to just get filled with those emotions,” veteran receiver Josh Reynolds said. “And in this game, that’s what it’s all about. So, it’s awesome to see him just kind of take that role and run with it.”

But, it runs much deeper than that for players like Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown, his 2021 draft classmate who joined him at the Pro Bowl in February after a monster 106-catch season.

“I know how he feels, being young and you’ve got guys that’ve been in this league a long time here,” St. Brown said. “But, he has more than enough experience now, and he has balled out in this league, so guys listen to him, and I think he kind of understands that now.

“My class, we’ve been part of this team with Dan since he got here, so we know the culture and we feel like we’ve made enough plays and have the respect of the team, so that we can start speaking up and being that leader now.”

They’re not alone, obviously. Others have stepped up and started to project more on both sides of the ball. And where it was once the coaches that seemed to be providing much of the soundtrack on the practice field, this spring, it seems a bit different.

“At the end of the day, Dan Campbell just gives us the green light: ‘It’s your team,’” said Sewell, who made his debut as the youngest player in NFL history to start at left tackle and, at 22, is still younger than five of the Lions’ eight rookie draft picks this year. “It’s a player-led team, so whoever wants to step up and whoever the team gravitates to the most, we just ride with them.”

But, that said, there’s no better place for it to start than in the trenches, where the strength of this team really lies. Particularly on offense, where Ben Johnson’s top-five unit rode on the back of one of the NFL’s best lines.

The Lions allowed just 24 sacks last season — second only to Tampa Bay’s 22 — and finished third in the league in rushing touchdowns. And that was without starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has returned after missing all of last season with a back injury that required surgery. (“We joke around all the time, but that’s damn near my uncle,” Sewell laughs, when asked about mentor and close friend.) The Lions also brought back a former starter in guard/center Graham Glasgow to bolster the line along with mainstays Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker and Jonah Jackson.

“Shoot, the sky’s the limit, to be honest,” said Sewell, who hasn’t missed a regular-season snap yet (2,181 and counting) as a pro. “Expectations are way higher. We’re coming out with a different intent, a different purpose than we were here last year. Attention to detail has to go up.”

Probably the volume, too. But listening to Sewell talk, he sounds up to the task.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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