Word of Muth

Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by Ben Muth

The Lions lost a tough game to the Bears last Thursday in a Thanksgiving Day game that pretty much ended their season. Detroit was in good shape until a pick-six and an interception in the end zone on back-to-back fourth-quarter drives sealed their fate. It was a tough way to lose a game that just about the entire country was watching, but they still did some nice things up front at least.

Rookie Frank Ragnow has rebounded to be a solid player after what was an absolute disastrous start to the year. I think he's going to be a big-time run blocker in this league for a while, and his pass protection has improved as the year went along as well. Very few rookies have a completely smooth transition from the college to pro ranks, and Ragnow wasn't one of those guys, but there were enough flashes in 2018 that Lions fans can feel excited about their first-rounder moving forward.

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That's a flash play right there by Ragnow (77). This is kind of a funky concept by the Lions that I really like. They're using the trap as an off-key or diversion so they can get a wham block on the play-side defensive tackle. Ragnow is pulling to trap the defensive tackle to the offense's right (Akiem Hicks, 96), and he absolutely buries the dude, but the real point of attack is the defensive tackle that was lined up over Ragnow (Jonathan Bullard, 90).

Look at how Ragnow's pull affects the play-side linebacker (Roquan Smith, 58). He goes flying into the right A-gap because everything he has ever been taught is telling him that Detroit is running the trap right there. Bullard is also fooled -- notice how he closes down the space Ragnow pulls away from. This makes the tight end's (Luke Willson, 82) wham block much easier as Bullard is already taking himself away from the play by the time Willson engages.

The only guy that wasn't fooled by the off-puller was the cornerback (Bryce Callahan, 37). That's because corners aren't usually reading keys in the run game, they're just watching the ball. Typically that's a bad thing, but here it works to his advantage. But of course it didn't matter, because corners can't tackle anyway. A nice gain on a cool concept.

via Gfycat

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The pancake on the trap block was awesome, but this was obviously a bigger play in the game. I wasn't in the meeting room all week, so it's possible that the Lions staff decided that with Khalil Mack on the opposing team, all their guards would slide out aggressively to help the offensive tackles in pass protection. If that wasn't a specific instruction, however, this is a bad job by Ragnow. He is flying out of there and really hanging his center out to dry. He's barely lays a hand on a guy that was lined up as a 3-technique (Leonard Floyd, 94) at the snap. That makes center Graham Glasgow's block very difficult, and it allows pressure right into Matthew Stafford's face. This was the last play of the game for the Lions. It's not a hurry that will be counted against Ragnow, but he's as culpable as anyone for what happened.

Overall I thought the Lions offensive line played fine. They ran the ball fairly effectively (111 yards, a 4.6-per-carry clip) and did a pretty good job of protecting Stafford. The unit as a whole has been basically league average, which is a nice step up from where they have been in the past few years. They currently rank 16th in adjusted line yards and 17th in adjusted sack rate, and those stats line up with how I've felt watching them: middle of the road in both aspects. I think if they can keep the same five guys together next year, they should become a top-10 unit. The key may be finding a way to keep T.J. Lang, who has been hurt, and the play has dipped without him.

via Gfycat

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That's Lang's backup Kenny Wiggins (79) getting the matador treatment at right guard. One thing that has really stuck out to me the last couple of years is how much better off you are having five OK-to-solid offensive linemen than you are having three studs and two puds up front. With the passing game, and how easy it is to spread teams out, you just need to avoid negative plays and getting beat really quickly.

Take the play above. This is an inside zone, and the Lions are trying to run off Ragnow's block. Ragnow kicks his guy's ass. He knocks him 3 yards off the ball, he widens him, it's a textbook block -- literally exactly what you're hoping for when you call the play. But because the backside guard completely whiffs, it's just a 2 yard gain.

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It wasn't just physical errors in Lang's absence either, there were a couple of mental gaffes as well. Wiggins is a veteran who has played a good deal of snaps in the NFL, and I'm not sure what he's doing here. This was the last play of the first half, so it wasn't a drive-killer, but you hate to give up a free shot on your quarterback when you have a guy sliding right into that gap. It's possible that Lions have a rule that the running back picks up any and all defensive back blitzes on this protection and Chicago just happens to bring one more DB than the protection can handle. That seems very unlikely, however, considering how the rest of the protection looks. I know Lang has a big cap hit next year ($11.5 million), but I think it's important that they try to find a way to bring him back.

That will do it for this week, and barring a pretty unexpected win streak, that will do it for my coverage of the Detroit Lions this year. Next week my plan is write about the Falcons for the last time, and then we'll look for some new teams that look poised to make the playoffs.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2018, 12:05am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by jtr // Nov 30, 2018 - 2:01pm

On that second play, could it just be that the protection call is a full-slide to the offensive left? It looks like everybody except the RT sets hard to their left at the snap, and then the RT gets a chip out of the backfield since he's the only guy who doesn't otherwise have any help.

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2 Re: Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by theslothook // Nov 30, 2018 - 3:53pm

"One thing that has really stuck out to me the last couple of years is how much better off you are having five OK-to-solid offensive linemen than you are having three studs and two puds up front."

I agree and a big reason why I still maintain drafting Nelson as the colts did was a suboptimal move.

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3 Re: Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by jtr // Nov 30, 2018 - 4:06pm

What's interesting to me though, is I think the key to building a great offensive line is to get three stars and fill in the gaps with average players. You turn a bad line into an OK one by picking up solid linemen; you turn an OK line into an overall team strength with three stars.

The top lines in the league over the past few years (Steelers, Saints, Cowboys, Rams) each have three guys who the team either took in the top two rounds or picked up as a premium free agent. When you've got three studs, you have enough talent on the line that you can scheme around the other two guys so long as they aren't terrible. The Nelson pick has payed big dividends for the team. They now have 4 high-pedigree guys on the line, and it's made a huge difference in both their passing and rushing offense.

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4 Re: Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by LionInAZ // Dec 01, 2018 - 7:26pm

Just want to say thanks, Ben, for doing this series on the Lions OL. Makes me wish that FO had someone who could break down defense issues as well as Ben does.

Retaining Lang is a worthwhile idea, but I think finding a qualified but less expensive guard would be a better option, as long as the team is out of contention.

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5 Re: Word of Muth: Last Call for the Lions

by chunky04 // Dec 03, 2018 - 12:05am

If you're looking at playoff bound teams, I'd be curious to see more on the Texans, since they like to run the ball, but the line is considered terrible. I know they have a lot of inexperienced lineman, so it would be interesting to see what is actually going on.

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