The Detroit Lions sit atop the NFC North at 3-1 coming into what should be another victory against the Buffalo Bills. Regardless of how their week 5 match against the Bills turns out, the Lions have been playing some surprisingly good football. Much of their success has come on the defensive side of the ball, a fortuitous change of events that very few saw coming.
Pinpointing a flaw in the team as a whole is fairly simple, as protecting the QB and running the ball have both been suffering due to the play of the offensive line. The revolving door at right tackle is the most obvious weak spot and the return of LaAdrian Waddle should help with that somewhat. Will it be enough, getting their starting right tackle back?
During the 2013 preseason, LaAdrian Waddle was a doughy, powerful prospect held back by some of the worst footwork and basic pass blocking mechanics I had ever seen in person. The make up of the roster ensured he would make the final cut based on his potential alone, but there was a lot of work to due with the former Texas Tech Red Raider.
In college, he wasn’t asked to sidestep very often due to the high octane passing scheme that had him working backwards from the moment the ball was snapped. This is counter to normal tackle technique, working laterally against speed rushers and ahead in the run game. After losing Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard to injury, Waddle was given his big shot in the middle of the season and the team never looked back.
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Waddle was a completely different player last season than he was in college or training camp, and a lot of that credit goes to offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn. Waddle graded out as the best rookie tackle last season, besting each of the top draft picks who were given much more clout. 2014 proved to be an entirely different story for LaAdrian Waddle. Despite working the entirety of the off-season, Waddle was rough in training camp for a second season, rough enough that journeyman Corey Hilliard was able to fight himself back into contention at the spot. Waddle won the job in the end, but only just. It wouldn’t last long, however, as LaAdrian Waddle went down with a calf injury early in week 1. Hilliard would go down for the season soon thereafter and the Lions troubles would begin.
Garrett Reynolds has not been the answer at right tackle and massive undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas has looked equally out of his element in spot duty. Five of the Lions first seven sacks came from the right tackle position, a trend that needs to stop with the quickness. Plugging that hole, even if LaAdrian Waddle is unable to capture his rookie form right away, will be essential to keeping Stafford upright and hopefully lighting a spark in the run game.
He can’t do it alone, however, and the rest of the line has hardly been stellar. Dominic Raiola has thankfully continued his 2013 level of play, but Larry Warford has seen a noticeable drop in his performance. Some of this is due to having to constantly bail out the RT position, but not all of his struggles can be attributed to that and he will have to get his mojo back to take full advantage of his line mate’s return. Warford felt like a pro bowl snub last season, but it would be hard to argue his play in 2014 as worthy of much praise.
The other side of the line is benefiting from some fairly consistent play from third year left tackle Riley Reiff, but I have doubts he’ll ever be more than just an okay player. What isn’t helping that side of the line is the rapid drop in play from Rob Sims. Long an anchor of the line, Sims’ decline started last year and seems to have accelerated in the new scheme. I predicted prior to the season that we would see some of Travis Swanson before this season is over, but it may end up being at LG rather than C.
Getting a starting quality right tackle like LaAdrian Waddle is huge, and it could be the spark this team needs to push their offense to an entirely different level. It won’t be just Waddle lifting the team up, though. Dominic Raiola has his work cut out for him as he must now rally the troops and identify what is wrong quickly and correct it. If the steady improvement of Riley Reiff continues and the Lions can figure out how to stem the bleeding at both guard positions, Waddle’s return could put this line back on track to finish where it did last season: One of the best lines in the NFL.