(as a point of reference, when I make the content jump to Fanball, I will merely be picking up wherever we are at on here. As I said before, it is merely a location, not content change. I will link back to pieces on here for the newer readers I am sure we will pick up along the way!)
Sooooooo - lots of O there; as in Offensive Line. Now, while I won't disagree that there has been some really offensive line play the last few years, I think we need to take a couple of factors into consideration:
1. The Martz Offensive has always been a pass happy, O-line on an Island with no real RB or TE help. This, of course, has lead to large numbers of sacks, hits, and hurries wherever it has been implemented. This makes any offensive line look bad.
2. Thanks in equal parts to horrid defense and a pass-happy offense to begin with, the line has been playing "back on their heels" for the better part of three years. This is NOT to be underestimated.
Lets take an example from an exercise I recently took part in at my ATA (American Taekwondo Association) class. The point of the exercise was to mimic intense self-defense situations (especially for the women) where someone is trying to use mainly their body to pressure you back into a wall or corner. To make a point, the instructors had our group rush from the other side of the room (with large body-shield pads) to essentially knock over the waiting females (trust me they were/are far from defenseless -- they are studying martial arts as well. no pansies there, trust me.). Those that met the charge aggressively in some way -- sidestepping, moving up and positioning punches, kicks, or shoves utilizing balance and momentum were able to do very well.
Those that tried to shy back, not so much. An attacker is expecting and wants you to step back on you heels, backpedalling away -- because your balance is compromised, as is your strength. You have almost no frontal strength when backpedalling -- and stopping from getting pushed backwards when already moving backwards means inertia is fighting against you. You need to be stepping into a block to have the greatest chance of success.
The last few years, the opposing Defensive Lines have been the aggressor, while the Lions Offensive line has been literally backpedalling while trying to stop them. That combination is a recipe for disaster -- as we all got to witness first hand.
Now, we also did this exercise where we were defenders, and the higher-ranks were the aggressors. When my first Sparta-style charging Spartan came rushing at me, I met him slightly to the side full force and used his own momentum to propel him to the side, and into the punching bags on the wall. (he was fine) and proceeded through to the next opponent.
When the Offensive line is blasting off the snap count, and hitting the defensive line that makes them the aggressor, instead of the defender. They are playing from a position of strength. Opposing defensive lines are ready, when playing that style, to set in and "stop the charge" -- so when the Oline does drop back a bit into pass protection, they can actually catch them by surprise -- taking advantage of the aggressive back and forth to pull them into the backfield some, and out of position to make a play. It also keeps the O-Line pumped and confident -- which is a factor that cannot be overlooked.
The main point of this is that the Lions O-Line has been playing from a position of weakness for years. This isn't to say it was stacked with pro-bowlers who were getting jobbed by any means -- it wasn't. But the players there were set up to fail.
3. Confusion among the Coaches. There was a great interview Jon Scott (former OT for the Lions) gave after being signed to the Buffalo Bills. His words say it all:
"Chaotic fragmentation. The shoddy separation of powers triggered
on-field breakdowns. Scott said the linemen became “chickens with
their heads cut off.” Who was supposed to block where was a play-
Jon Scott is not a future hall of famer, but he is in the mix to replace Jason Peters in Buffalo, and that means he is good enough to play in this league.
So what does it all mean? It means we don't know much about most of the Lions O-line. However, you know me -- I'll take a crack at it anyways.
First, lets look at the depth chart as it now stands: (from DetroitLions.com as of 7-14-09)
# Name Position Height Weight Age Years College
65 Gandy, Dylan C 6-3 290 27 4 Texas Tech
64 Gerberry, Dan C 6-3 302 23 R Ball State
51 Raiola, Dominic C 6-1 295 29 9 Nebraska
73 Fonoti, Toniu G 6-4 340 27 7 Nebraska
66 Peterman, Stephen G 6-4 323 27 5 Louisiana State
71 Ramirez, Manny G 6-3 326 25 3 Texas Tech
76 Backus, Jeff T 6-5 305 30 9 Michigan
75 Barton, Kirk T 6-6 300 24 1 Ohio State
77 Cherilus, Gosder T 6-7 319 24 2 Boston College
74 Cook, Damion T 6-5 330 29 9 Bethune-Cookman
68 Jansen, Jon T 6-6 297 33 11 Michigan
70 Loper, Daniel T 6-6 320 27 5 Texas Tech
71 Murtha, Lydon T 6-7 315 23 R Nebraska
72 Salaam, Ephraim T 6-7 310 32 12 San Diego State
At first glance, you can tell Martin Mayhew went Tackle shopping this ifseason. A whopping 8 players listed at OT, with just 3 G and 3 C. So what gives?
Well, first off, here is your starting Offensive Line for 2009, game 1:
LT - Jeff Backus
LG - Daniel Loper
C - Dominic Raiola
RG - Stephen Peterman
RT - Gosder Cherilus
It is the backup positions where I feel there is the most competition among the line, no matter what way the Allen Park Rail Line is taking us with their statements. They don't want the "incumbents" to feel comfortable, but the reality is that the starting jobs are those 5 guys to lose.
Jeff Backus is still a long term investment for the Lions. As LT's go, you have better, you have worse. He's not pro-bowl caliber, and at this point in his career never likely will be. He is hard working, and can get the job done -- especially if the Lions actually scheme in some short throws, and TE help with the speed rushers off the edge. Having a healthy, solid LG in his prime next to him will surely help as well. If Backus doesn't show improvement at least back to average in 2009, look for that to be at the top of Martin Mayhew's wish list next ifseason (along with a DT and a CB).
Dominic Raiola just got an extension from the Lions and for good reason: If they cut him today, he would be immediately picked up and could start for better than half the teams in the NFL. End of story. You keep a guy like that around. Sure, he has weakness -- but what player doesn't? Scheming to move him into the second level while Peterman and Cherilus level guys on their side would be one good move, as Raiola is good at pulling, and great in space.
Daniel Loper is listed as a T because that was his position in Tennessee, although in reality he was the #1 backup LT, LG, RG, and RT -- and when he went in there was ZERO dropoff in line play. Tennessee was returning it's excellent starting lineup, and Loper was too expensive to hold onto as a backup. Good news is, he is here on a 1 year deal so if he doesn't step up to his opportunity to start, the Lions aren't "stuck" with him long term. My gut says he more than steps up to the challenge, and is signed long-term by the Lions.
Stephen Peterman wasn't brought back to ride the pine -- he was brought back to continue the progress he and Cherilus showed together as the season progressed, and the Lions did some more man-power-blocking (blowing people off the ball offensively, instead of stepping back and look offensive). Thanks to the big point deficits, the running game wasn't given a consistent chance but when Kevin Smith did run to that side, the Peterman-Cherilus tandem did their jobs well.
Gosder Cherilus showed some flashes last year when finally given a chance to play, and to take his lumps. Every rookies has some struggles, and Cherilus was no exception. Moving to the man-based power blocking scheme this year that Linehan favors will help him tremendously as he is the type of player that likes to be taking chunks out of guys, not stepping back and waiting for them. I look for him to take a big leap this year.
The rest: No Clue. I don't have a great read on how any of them are doing. Position flexibility will be key. I think Gerberry finds a spot on the practice squad, just in case something happens to Raiola so the team doesn't get stuck without a true backup center. Raiola is usually pretty durable, but better safe than sorry. I also think Murtha makes it to the practice squad as he will be good enough to stick, but not good enough for someone else to sign to the active roster. IF he can develop, he could be a replacement for Backus down the road.
Cook didn't look anything other than ordinary in his limited action, and I just don't see him on the final roster unless it is as the final backup G/T. Salaam was signed to pressure Backus and Jansen to pressure Cherilus and right now I have them pegged as the backup G/T, with one of the rest making the roster as the primary backup G.
The way I see it at this point is that Loper is really the backup LT, with many of the others having their strength at RT or a LG. Just my own hypothesizing.
Realistically, the Lions may make more moves to bring in young linemen as cuts are made, but all the shuffling is among the backups. Barring a horrendous camp or some other screwup the starters are set.
The big IF here is IF the line play was really a result of the three factors I listed, and IF the new coaching/scheme fixes that and helps hide weakness then the Line MAY be good in 2009. IF the players are really better than they looked...