During the era of Matthew Stafford, it's safe to say that one of the reasons he was never able to truly establish himself amongst the upper echelons of the league's elite Quarterbacks (even though every Lions fan alive knows he is one of the best in the business) was down to never having a really good Offensive Line in front of him, and rather annoyingly it wasn't until this, his final year as a Lion, that an Offensive Line worthy of him started to come together. Over the period of just over a decade that Stafford has been under center in the Motor City, the Lions have produced just 2 Pro-Bowlers on the Offensive Line. Those are Frank Ragnow, our utterly dominant Center drafted in 2018, in the latest edition of the Pro-Bowl, and the human wrecking machine that was TJ Lang back in 2017. If you're looking for the last Lions Offensive Lineman to make the Pro-Bowl before that you have to go back to Lomas Brown, the highly respected Tackle picked up by the Lions in the 1985 draft who made a whopping 7 consecutive Pro- Bowls, the last of those for the Lions coming in 1995. He started 163 of his 164 games in Detroit and was part of the Line that allowed the greatest Running Back in history, Barry Sanders, to ruin opposition teams for years.
As mentioned though, after many years of struggles on the Offensive Line and not a great deal of expectation around it coming into the 2020 season, it soon became apparent that something was different. Teams were struggling to reach number 9, and he suddenly found himself with a level of time to throw that he'd not had in years. Sadly, with Stafford coming of the back of a bad injury and the Offense not firing up properly at the start of the season this newfound confidence on the Offensive Line didn't translate into results, but even with injuries cropping up and rotation taking place, the Line, for the most part, held firm in a way we have not seen in some time. A lot of credit has to go to Hank Fraley, the O-Line coach brought in from UCLA to be assistant O-Line coach in Detroit, then promoted last season to actual O-Line coach, and his first season has been a resounding success, to the point that the Lions had to fight off huge interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers for his services, and managing to hold on to him is a huge win for the Lions. But it wasn't just the change of coaching that led to a reversal of fortunes on the Offensive Line, it was the performance of the players, and the emergence of a couple of surprise names that have given Lions fans real hope that whoever lines up under center in the post-Stafford era, that they are in good hands when it comes to protection.
Taylor Decker was handed a six-year, $85 million contract before the season that had more than a few people, myself included, wondering if we had overpaid to keep him at LT as his play till then had not always consistently been amongst that of the elite LT's, and he had the bad shoulder injury on top of that. Well I'm more than happy to say I was wrong, and I've eaten my humble pie without complaint. Decker gave up just 2 sacks all season, both in the very ugly shutout against the Panthers, and 8 Quarterback hits of which 3 came against New Orleans. For me he was the second-best LT in the league after David Bakhtiari at Green Bay who had an astonishingly great season.
Next to Decker was Jonah Jackson, the Guard from Ohio State drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft. A pre-season injury to LG incumbent Joe Dahl opened up the door for Jackson, who promptly opened the door, closed it behind him, and nailed it shut to stop Dahl from taking it back. Bearing in mind this year's rookies had no rookie camp or pre-season because of Coronavirus, making it harder than ever to adapt to NFL conditions, Jackson took that Guard spot and made it his own and didn't once look back, starting all 16 games and establishing himself with many admirers in the Lions fanbase. Jackson did give up 5 sacks, but 3 of them again came in the blowout against the Panthers, so in his rookie year having had no preparation time he ended up with 13 games without giving up a sack, and he gave up just 5 QB hits on top of that. A very pleasant surprise and he's only going to get better.
A good O-Line is defined by it's Center, the guy who sets the tone and leads by example, Frank Ragnow is one of the best Center's in the NFL and again for me only lost out last season to his Green Bay counterpart, Corey Linsley. Ragnow gave up a grand total of 1 QB hit all season and not a single sack. He missed 2 games as a result of a fractured throat, an injury which he played through for an entire game against Green Bay and their premier NT Kenny Clark who is the best in the business and still he gave up nothing. The man is the very definition of an Iron-Man and his pro-bowl selection was well earned, this is his contract year and expect him to get PAID by the Lions to lead this line for many years to come. With this article shining quite a positive light on the O-Line so far it's only fair to highlight the negative, and RG is the spot where the Lions had a lot of trouble last season with no-one establishing themselves in that role and that lack of continuity upset the right side of the Line.
Big-signing FA Halapoulivaati Vaitai got injured early and lost his starting tackle job and so was swapped into the RG spot, contrary to popular opinion I thought he did fairly well after a bad start but injury issues reduced him to playing in just 10 of the 16 games and some of those he went out injured as well, it's not a good situation to be in for someone earning $10 million per season.
Oday Aboushi was the backup for Vaitai and he ended up actually ended up playing really well after the firing of Matt Patricia. Before that, I was ready to let him go because in previous years he was prone to penalties and inconsistent play. But he ended up posting PFF averages in the upper to mid 60's and showed enough to me to warrant keeping him on another season if the Lions don't invest heavily on an RG this year.
Joe Dahl also filled in at RG but uncharacteristically he struggled in his limited playing time and will surely be on the potential list of cuts this coming off-season as the Lions look to the future.
The last guy on the rejuvenated O-Line, the one I've deliberately left till last as he is the focal point of this article, is RT Tyrell Crosby, the Tackle from Oregon drafted in the 5th round of the 2018 draft.
Now, why have I chosen to focus on one particular member of the Offensive Line? To answer that I have to return to the start of this season. Before it started and I was asked about the Lions chances for the forthcoming season on our Roar Of The Lions Podcast, it was an answer that was up in the air because it was such a hard team to analyse, but given I am ever the optimist I went with 10-6. My reasoning for this was although we may not have the best team ever, what we did have was a group of players with huge amounts of potential, and if a significant number of them made the jump during the season then we had the opportunity to really make waves in the league. As we know now that didn't happen, and my prediction was basically reversed, but that doesn't mean that some players didn't show progression. Taylor Decker proved himself worthy of every penny of his new contract with a stellar season, TJ Hockensen went from what was a very disappointing rookie season to earning a spot in the Pro-Bowl, the 2019 first-round pick came back with a vengeance and put up some really impressive numbers whilst breaking through Stafford's trust issues with Tight Ends. Romeo Okwara broke out big time, garnering 10 Sacks and 3 Forced Fumbles on his way to ensuring a very healthy payday this off-season.
And this is where the article came from, as a British fan I may interpret the game differently from those over the pond with vast amounts of knowledge more than myself which is fine, but the way I look at it, I look for players who want to progress in the game, show a willingness to do so and even if they are not the greatest to start with, if you can see the progression of that player and see them putting in the effort, then that is the kind of player I want to support and see represent the Detroit Lions. The Offensive Line opinions I have seen have been mostly spot-on. Decker and Ragnow were showered with praise and rightly so, Jackson was lauded as a great draft pick which is also true, and concerns were raised about RG which are just as valid, but then there is the reaction to our RT.
And that brings me to Tyrell Crosby, without a doubt the breakout guy on that Offensive Line last season for me. Tackle is undoubtedly one of the toughest positions to play in the NFL, having to do battle with elite EDGE rushers every week, and coming into this season Crosby was a backup who had played just 527 snaps over his first 2 seasons, primarily at RT. He was widely looked at as a backup, and with the big pay-day given to Vaitai to induce him to Detroit to be the starting RT for the season, no-one was really looking at Crosby to do much this year except carry on in his rotational role, and it would have been easy for Crosby himself to start worrying about the future with only 2 years left and Vaitai been signed up for 4. However, an opportunity presented itself when the injury-prone Tackle exited a training session in August with an injury which led to an unexpected opportunity into which Crosby stepped into for the season opener against the Bears. That game, against one of the fiercest pass-rushing attacks in the entire NFL led by Khalil Mack, Crosby didn't allow a single sack or QB hit on Matthew Stafford, and he only allowed 3 pressures. He did give away 2 penalties but his season tally was only 3 so he gets a pass. In the four-game spell up until the Lions really early bye week, Crosby coughed up a solitary sack, no QB hits, and just 7 pressures. And this wasn't against soft defenses, by this point the Lions had faced the Mack led Bears, the Smith brother led Packers, the Cardinals with Chandler Jones, Haasan Reddick and Budda Baker, and the Saints who featured the breaking out Trey Hendrickson and Cameron Jordon.
It's fair to say that Crosby had a really good start to the season from out of nowhere and to epitomise just how much management thought of his performances, in week 3 when Vaitai was declared fit to play after injury, instead of pulling Crosby from the lineup in a straight swap, Vaitai instead got shoehorned into the vacant RG spot whilst Crosby continued at tackle, a big show of faith when you have invested so much money in a player to come and play RT. After the bye, Crosby's form dropped off a few games although he continued to protect Stafford with aplomb, he then put in two very good performances against the Vikings and Washington who, especially the latter, boast top-quality pass rushing attacks. The Washington game may well have been his finest performance of the season. Crosby lined up against one Chase Young, the guy who Lions fans were praying would fall to 3 in the draft. Young in his first season was DPOTM for December, won Defensive Rookie of the Year, made the All-Conference team and was one of just 2 rookies from the 2020 class to make the pro-bowl and finished the season with an 87 grade on PFF, in short, he had a monster rookie year and made life hell for even elite Tackles. It was a deliberate ploy from Washington trying to get Young away from Decker and on to who they thought was the weak Tackle, however it didn't work so well. Crosby didn't give up a sack, a QB hit, he did not give up a single pressure. Young got that frustrated with his lack of success that he deliberately targeted a late hit on Stafford after a play cause that's the only time he got to touch him and ended up giving away a big penalty. Young ended that game with a PFF rating of 38, which to put into perspective, the next lowest all season was 52, and this was the only time he went sub 50. That just shows how good a job Crosby did to keep him quiet.
Overall, Tyrell Crosby started the first 12 games of the season before an ankle injury prematurely ended it. Over those 12 games, he gave up 5 Sacks (2 in THAT Panthers game), just 1 QB hit and 14 hurries, making for just 20 pressures on his season, or about 1.5 a game. Now let's put this into some further perspective, this is a guy who came into this season as backup not expecting to start, and it gets further complicated when you look at the RG situation. Your ability at Tackle will be influenced in part by the Guard at the side of you, if he's not very good then it's going to affect your own level of play. Taylor Decker, the recently well paid experienced LT lucked out getting a talented reliable rookie in Jackson next to him for 14 games. Crosby, who up until then was just a backup, ended up playing with Jonah Jackson, Joe Dahl, Vaitai, and Oday Aboushi in just 12 games. So as well as getting thrown into a regular starting slot in a difficult position to master, he then had to deal with a constantly rotating Guard slot next to him, making building up solid partnerships on the right-hand side of that line even harder. Despite all that getting thrown at him, he still only coughed up 1.5 pressures a game. To me that alone is a fact that puts a great deal of respect on his name for what he was able to achieve.
However before you think I only put value in stats, that is not the case, and I am aware there is more to a Tackles game than just keeping the pressure stats down, it's their ability to help with the passing and run games. Now it's not a secret that last year, Stafford was afforded a lot more protection in the passing game than he has for years, and Crosby was part of the Line that ensured that was the case, and in this case, the stats do back up his contribution to that success as opposition rushers had precious little success against him, basically, Crosby proved himself as a very reliable tackle in the passing game. His contribution to the running game becomes a little murkier and his PFF grade drops 12 points compared to his passing protection. However, this is where I will stand up for him against the facts. Yes, he did struggle with helping the run game get going, I have watched him very closely this season and re-watched lots of tape on him to help with this article, but I'm not entirely sure how much of it is on him, and for that reason, I'm certainly not willing to pass judgement on him yet especially given what he has contributed to all the other aspects of his game. Crosby had 2 big problems to deal with last year when