ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Dominic Raiola has been through all of this, the constructing and deconstructing of an offensive line around him. He has seen it throughout his decade-plus with the Detroit Lions.
All around the center, the names, faces and skills have changed. Yet he remains. So when he speaks up in the room of offensive linemen and challenges his peers who watched him have one of the best seasons of his career in 2013, there is some gravitas there.
“My question to the guys was, ‘Is that really us? Who are you? Are you going to be the same group?'“ Raiola said. “Because now if we fall off any, we’re going to hear it so we have to keep our level of play up there or better.
“We don’t want to be the group that holds this team back. We want to be steady and opening holes, protecting the quarterback. We’re good with hanging in the back and nothing being said about us. We’re good with that.”
They were good with it last season, too, when the Lions allowed the second-fewest sacks in the NFL (23) and gave Detroit’s running backs enough room to average 4.03 yards a carry. While that number was below the league average last season, it did not account for the Lions’ newfound screen game with Reggie Bush, where the slightest opening by Rob Sims, Larry Warford or Raiola resulted in a large gain.
Those short passes that turned into big plays are where the running backs noticed the strength of the line -- something Bush saw during last preseason. In that game, he watched Warford crush a New England linebacker, one of the loudest hits he said he heard all of 2013.
But those plays need to be more than just in passing. They need to be as consistent as they were a season ago.
“it was a great thing he did for the O-line. You know, one of the biggest things as an offensive line coming off a big year is can you replicate it and he wants to challenge us to confirm that validity that we were a great offensive line,” Warford said. “He doesn’t want us, as far as all the praise coming from the media and the coaches, he doesn’t want that getting into our heads.
“So he’s basically, what he’s asking through that is are we getting complacent with ourselves and challenging us to perform better is very key in our development.”
That focus has been apparent throughout the early portion of camp, even if the offensive line has allowed blown-dead whistle sacks occasionally throughout the first week of practice. This is, after all, a group with just one first-round draft pick among its top eight guys -- left tackle Riley Reiff.
Raiola was a second round pick in 2001 -- and has had to fight the past few years to have the Lions continue to bring him back as he hits his mid-30s. Warford was a third round pick. Sims went in the fourth round. Corey Hilliard was a sixth-round pick. LaAdrian Waddle and Rodney Austin were undrafted. Travis Swanson is a rookie.
The Lions’ offensive line has been in a prove-it stage for the majority of their careers, so they aren’t extremely concerned about a dip in production now that there have been accolades given to them.
That was the message Raiola was sending, and the one the Lions’ offensive line is attempting to turn into their own throughout the year.
“The point is, nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder,” Hilliard said. “So we had one good year? So what? The great ones do it year after year. That’s what we’re trying to do.”