Lions Must Emulate Cowboys and Continue Building Offensive Line

Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) is blocked by Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) is blocked by Detroit Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker (68) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

Lions Can Learn From Cowboys’ Successful 2016 Season.

The Lions made big strides this season, mainly because they made it a priority to build their offensive line. In his first season as Detroit’s GM, Bob Quinn drafted two starting, high-potential offensive lineman in the first and third round of the 2016 Draft. Graham Glasgow and Taylor Decker both had very good rookie seasons as Detroit surprised most national analysts by finishing 9-7. In the Lions’ Playoff loss to the Seahawks, the difference in the game was Seahawks’ ability to run the football.

Oct 5, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner (34) get hits by Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (77) during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field. Seahawks won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

Yes, the Lions were without two starting offensive lineman in Travis Swanson and Riley Reiff, which unquestionably hurt them. They weren’t going to be able to run the ball even if they had been healthy, though, which is really my point. The Lions need to become dominant up front if they want to stop wasting Matthew Stafford’s career. Nobody would suggest Stafford has been perfect, but when you’re as talented as he is, it’s shameful they can’t build even an average running game around him after eight years.

To see what it looks like when you invest in the offensive line, look no further than the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys. They resisted the flash for multiple years and kept drafting quality offensive lineman. So when they finally decided to invest the 4th-overall pick in a running back in this year’s draft, the result was a dominant all-around team. That Cowboys line played so well that a rookie, backup quarterback is an MVP candidate. I absolutely love Dak Prescott as a player, but his success is by design.

The Cowboys had a plan as Tony Romo got older, and that was to build the team around the running game. They set out to extend the career of Romo by not letting him get hit so much (something the Lions should be thinking about ). And also to make him be a complementary player. It’s similar to what the Denver Broncos did at the end of John Elway’s career. The less you ask your QB to carry a one-dimensional offense, the better he’s going to play. Romo thrived in 2014 when he had a career-high passer rating as the Cowboys were able to run the ball at will with DeMarco Murray. This year, it was Dak Prescott who benefitted from that same blueprint with Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys have used 1st-round picks at left tackle, center, and right guard. They also signed a 1st-round caliber left guard who went undrafted after a murder controversy that was overblown. You have to get the picks right, and that’s been the key with the Cowboys. They built a team that doesn’t need to out-clever opponents or put the whole game on the QB’s arm. The Cowboys line up and run the ball until the game is over.

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The effectiveness of the running game brings up the safeties and linebackers, which opens up the play-action passing game. Imagine the kind of things Matthew Stafford could do with the extra time in the pocket and a defense expecting the run. This strategy also keeps the defense off of the field, and we all know Detroit couldn’t sustain a drive to save their lives for pretty much this entire 2016 season. The Lions’ game plan was to hold the opposing offense under 20, then asking Matthew Stafford to go win the game with one all-or-nothing drive at the end. He just happened to be good at it, so the Lions squeaked out games they had no business winning.

Another factor the Lions are missing is a feature running back. This really isn’t even relevant until they get better up front. Hell, Zach Zenner would likely be a 1,000-Yard rusher if he ran behind Dallas’ offensive line. Would Ezekiel Elliott be an upgrade on the Lions? Of course he would, but he wouldn’t be even close to the same player he is in Dallas. Answer the following question: Who would have more yards? Elliott starting on the Lions this season, or Zenner starting on the Cowboys? The fact that you even thought about it shows why the Lions are just fine with Abdullah, Zenner and Riddick next season.

Bob Quinn has shown an ability to draft good offensive lineman in his first year as Lions GM. But the team can’t feel overly content just because they hit on Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow. Quinn must keep his eyes focused on the bigger picture and continue to resist the flash while building the trenches. The Lions have a long way to go, but he can make a statement about where they’re headed with another upgrade up front in the draft.

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