What happened to Larry Warford and the Detroit Lions Offensive Line?


Oct 12, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford (75) rests during the game with the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Lions win 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It seems as if it were just yesterday when the Detroit Lions were being heralded for making the steal of the draft when they chose Larry Warford in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Warford bested Travis Frederick, Eddie Lacy and Keenan Allen to become Pro Football Focus’ Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Understand how good Warford was in his first year. He wasn’t just PFF’s offensive rookie of the year; Warford was the highest graded offensive guard Pro Football Focus had EVER graded. Not even Mike Iupati graded out higher.

Warford wasn’t the Lions’ only offensive lineman making waves as fellow rookie LaAdrian Waddle stepped out of the undrafted ranks into the spotlight. Waddle would eventually seize a starting gig alongside Warford on the right side of the Lions offensive line. It hadn’t been pretty for several years, but through hard work and effort the 2013 Detroit Lions possessed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

Reflecting on the 2013 Lions Offensive Line in his column on Mlive.com Justin Rogers writes:

Only the Denver Broncos gave up fewer sacks this season and Detroit tallied its most rushing yards since 1998, when a gentleman named Barry Sanders was dancing around in the backfield.

Not impressed? How about this: The offensive line reduced their holding penalties by 50 percent and their false start infractions by 38 percent from last season.

Finally, and this one might shock you, the Lions ranked fourth in the NFL in power runs, defined as third- and fourth-down carries of two or fewer yards that achieved a first down or touchdown.

The prior begs the question, how did the Lions go from having one of the best offensive lines in the NFL two short seasons ago to one that looks down right abysmal today?

The simple answer – scheme!

Sep 7, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan on the sidelines against the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s said, absence makes the heart grow fonder. For Lions fans, the transition from Scott Linehan to Joe Lombardi has deepened our level of appreciation for the former in ways we would have though incomprehensible two years prior.

We were wrong about Linehan on so many levels.

We now realize Linehan used offensive playmakers much better than we originally thought. His true genius however may have in his orchestration of the offensive line. Linehan’s ‘hybrid’ Power Blocking Scheme capitalized on the people moving ability of his linemen and yet occasionally incorporated some of the more desirable aspects of the Zone Blocking Scheme.

Before we go any further it’s important to differentiate between zone and Power Blocking Schemes.

Power Blocking vs Zone Blocking                  

Power/Man BlockingZone Blocking
Coveted Physical Traits:Large, physically imposing players with long limbsUndersized, well-conditioned, agile & highly intelligent
Coveted Skills:Dynamic ‘punch’ at the point of attack & understanding of leverageQuickness, agility, ability to climb to the 2nd level of defenses & flawless technique
Techniques Required:Standard blocking techniquesSeveral scheme specific blocking techniques are required
Schematic Goals:To move defenders backwardsTo move defenders laterally

The Power Blocking Scheme is the grassroots foundation of football. Also called, ‘man’ or ‘drive’ blocking, this is the most common blocking scheme teams used at all levels of football. Though this scheme is somewhat vulnerable to more sophisticated defensive stratagems it has proven an effective protection scheme that can support all types of offensive game plans.

Nov 24, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions offensive guard Larry Warford (75) high fives teammates prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle excelled within Linehan’s hybrid form of the Power Blocking Scheme. They are both big, physical guys who wear opposing defenders down by the end of a game. In 2013, we saw defenders feign effort, but as the games wore into the 3rd and 4th quarters, most opponents wanted no part in repeatedly butting heads with Larry Warford. I can’t say I blame them.

This off-season the Lions added two more players who can excel in a Power Blocking Scheme – Laken Tomlinson & Manny Ramirez.

Unfortunately, the Lions are no longer using a Power Blocking Scheme or any hybrid thereof. Upon hire, Jim Caldwell & Joe Lombardi opted to dismantle the protection scheme the Detroit Lions used with a great deal of success in past in favor of installing a Zone Blocking Scheme.

The Zone Blocking Scheme is a newer, more sophisticated blocking construct. Where the Power Blocking Scheme is focused on 1 on 1 matchups, Zone Blocking Schemes focus on creating protection to a specific area (or zone) along the line of scrimmage. Zone Blocking requires a great deal more from offensive linemen which is why there is so much confusion among Lions offensive linemen.

For example, in a Power Blocking Scheme offensive linemen pick the closest defender and get a ‘helmet on a helmet.’ This Power Scheme requires teamwork, but one missed assignment doesn’t automatically lead to a breach in the protection.

Aug 3, 2015; White Sulphur Springs, WV, USA; New Orleans Saints full back Austin Johnson (35) hits a blocking sled during training camp at The Greenbrier. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

In the Zone Blocking Scheme linemen have to sort through several items of data. They first need to figure out whether they are on the side the play will develop (playside) or if they are on the backside of the play. Then they must determine whether they are ‘covered’ or ‘uncovered’ by a defender. Next they have to figure out which blocking technique is required for a given situation. And finally, where blockers in power schemes get to fire off the ball vertically and move people backwards, linemen in Zone Blocking Schemes move horizontally, using technique and angles to guide defenders out of position.

Despite having the personnel to pancake or otherwise physically dominate defenders the Zone Blocking Scheme asks players to set their natural talents aside in favor of executing cut blocks or finding ‘aiming points’ on defenders to turn them away from plays.

Although the Lions have invested two full off-seasons in making the transition to the Zone Blocking Scheme it remains a work in progress. The guys at Pride of Detroit captured an image that depicts the gross level of confusion this scheme is creating.

At first glance the image above seems comical. One would think Ricardo Mathews is so formidable he’s able to occupy four Lions blockers. In reality, the Zone Blocking Scheme is created more issues for the offensive line than did the Chargers’s defender.

I’m guessing the Chargers showed double A-gap pressure prior to the snap then at the snap their linebackers retreated into coverage.  Without knowing the protection call it’s difficult to surmise who blew their assignment, but I’m guessing #64 – Center Travis Swanson shouldn’t be the farthest man away from the opposing nose tackle.

In a Power Blocking Scheme offensive linemen would have prepared to block whoever was directly in front of them and Bell would have stepped up to absorb any free blitzers. In the Zone Blocking Scheme the line misunderstood or miscommunicated their assignments resulting in a free rusher converging on Stafford despite the Lions having a numerical advantage against the Chargers front.

Watching protection breakdowns over the past two games with an eye on zone blocking assignments it’s brazenly apparent the Lions offensive line is so greatly confused there isn’t a ‘quick fix’ in sight as there’s a conceptual disconnect between the players and the scheme.

Mlive.com’s Kyle Meinke records center Travis Swanson as he speaks to this point:

"“It’s not one specific thing,” center Travis Swanson said. “It changes from day-to-day. If it was one specific thing, I feel like everyone would … I mean, you would know. It just depends.”"

As a fan it’s my hope Martin Mayhew has called Joe Lombardi and Jim Caldwell into his office saying no one in this building benefits from Dan Orlovsky taking meaningful snaps under center this season. So let’s swallow our pride and get back to a blocking scheme we know can protect out quarterback and create some running lanes.

After all, there’s no real reason the Lions MUST switch to the Zone Blocking Scheme. Sean Payton has employed both Zone and Power Blocking Schemes during his tenure in New Orleans. The Zone Blocking Scheme is a wonderful tool, but only if a team has the expertise to teach it and personnel to run it. It doesn’t appear as if the Lions have either at this point.

While the Lions try desperately to force the installation of the Zone Blocking Scheme, it’s worth reiterating how successful Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle were in the Hybrid Power Blocking Scheme Detroit used a couple of seasons ago. Pro Football Focus credited the Lions with having top 10 offensive lines at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Power Blocking is in the wheelhouse of offensive linemen like Laken Tomlinson and Manny Ramirez as well. This may be why Pro Football Focus projected the Lions with fielding the 9th best offensive line in 2015.

The previous seems to beg the question why is this coaching staff willing to risk Matthew Stafford’s health, and by extension, the 2015 season by refusing to revert to a blocking scheme we know works?

Why indeed.

What’s your take Lions fans? According to PFF, Martin Mayhew has assembled one of the more talented offensive lines in the NFL which suggests scheme not talent is causing the unit to underperform. How would you resolve the issue? And what role, if any, does Matthew Stafford have in protection failing to work? Let me know what you think on Twitter. I can be found at @dmacali818.

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