NFC North: Larry Warford
The defensive tackle is officially listed as doubtful for Sunday against Dallas after returning to practice on a limited basis Thursday and Friday. This does not bode well for Fairley’s chances of making his return against the Cowboys.
Only one Detroit player has been officially ruled out for Sunday’s game. Right guard Larry Warford, who has not practiced all week, is officially out with a right knee injury. He’ll likely be replaced in the lineup by rookie Travis Swanson, who started Week 17 at center and started at right guard this season when Warford injured his left knee.
On Friday, when asked if Caldwell would change his assessment of miracle, he initially joked that he said that last year. That’s true, as 2014 turned to 2015, and it would seem Caldwell’s thoughts have changed on that as well.
“So we’ll kind of continue to assess that and see where he is.”
The first-year Lions coach didn’t dismiss what Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday, that he wouldn’t be opposed to having Fairley active even if he can play only five to 10 plays because of what he’s potentially able to create in those snaps.
Caldwell said Fairley is in a “practice process to play protocol,” which sounds like there is at least the possibility the Lions will use him in their playoff matchup against Dallas if he gets through Friday’s practice and Saturday’s walkthrough without any setbacks.
Fairley practiced for the second straight day Friday. The only Lions player who did not work out was right guard Larry Warford, who has not practiced all week with a right knee injury.
Right guard Larry Warford left Sunday's 30-20 loss to Green Bay with a left knee injury and did not return to the game. He walked off the field, had the knee examined and then was carted back to the locker room at Lambeau Field with a towel over his head.
Warford missed three games earlier this season with a knee injury and was replaced in the lineup by rookie Travis Swanson. Considering Caldwell said center Dominic Raiola would regain his starting spot Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET, Fox) against the Cowboys, the Lions could easily slide Swanson in at right guard if necessary.
Losing Warford, who was instrumental in some of Detroit's longer runs early Sunday against the Packers, would be a big blow to a Lions' offensive line that has struggled blocking and staying healthy this season.
Only one of the Lions' starting linemen -- left guard Rob Sims -- started all 16 games this season.
"It hurts us, no doubt," Sims said. "Larry's a great young guard. Plays really well for us. Does really good things for us but that's what I'm saying. I'm the only one, I got an opportunity to play all 16 this year, which is a good thing for myself dealing with what I was dealing with.
"But if you look at our lineup up and down every single week, we were able to overcome some things and get stuff done."
- Left guard Rob Sims said he spoke with suspended Lions center Dominic Raiola earlier Sunday. He wouldn’t get into what the conversation was about but said Raiola was a bit down. Sims said he was sure Raiola watched the game.Raiola
“He wasn’t doing too well,” Sims said. “Of course he wanted to be here for this one. Of course he did.”
Rookie Travis Swanson replaced Raiola at center.
- Lions coach Jim Caldwell went off on a reporter who asked him why the team didn’t blitz Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers more after he returned to the game with an injured calf that clearly limited the MVP candidate. Caldwell was displeased with the way the question was asked.
“Well, you’re probably getting into some areas where you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Caldwell said. “First of all, because of the fact that we have to look at this guy for what he’s done. If you look at the number of times when he gets blitzed, what happens; if you look at the number of times people play zones against him, what happens; when you start looking at all those things, breaking them down, looking at those things, then you might be qualified to ask me that question.”
- Caldwell had no real update on the status of starting right guard Larry Warford, who left the game in the first half with a knee injury. He was carted off and didn’t return. Caldwell said he was “not sure” when asked if he anticipated having him for the playoffs against Dallas.
In the third quarter Sunday during Detroit's 16-14 win against Minnesota, Warford heard something he never heard from his close friend before. After Waddle's left leg was rolled up on, Warford heard him yell.
Waddle had his left leg rolled on during the second-to-last play of the third quarter. He immediately showed signs of pain. Then he fell to the ground and was down for minutes as doctors and trainers examined him. Lions coach Jim Caldwell also came out to check on his injured knee.
Then the cart came out for him and he was helped onto it, his right leg extended and his left leg bent as he was taken off the field.
Caldwell said he was "not certain" about whether Waddle's season was over and didn't have any concrete updates on his right tackle's status.
"No, not yet," Caldwell said. "Obviously, any time they get carted off, you know it's not good. So we'll see."
This has been a rough season of injuries for Waddle. He was injured on the first series of the season opener against New York with a calf injury that forced him to miss the next three games. He has also had two brain injuries, an ankle injury and a different knee injury -- almost all of them forcing him to miss all or parts of other games this season.
"My heart goes out to him because he's a young kid, has a lot of talent," left guard Rob Sims said. "He's just kind of been plagued by things, little stuff here and there and being a younger guy who was kind of plagued by some things, they put titles on you and things like that."
If Waddle is forced to miss time -- and judging on how the injury looked and the way his teammates were talking, it seems possible -- rookie Cornelius Lucas will slide in at right tackle once again for Detroit as it continues its playoff push.
Under that metric, Thursday could be a good day for the Detroit Lions.
Right guard Larry Warford, left tackle Riley Reiff and running back Reggie Bush all were practicing during the open portion of practice for the Lions -- potentially signifying all three could be available for Detroit against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
In Warford and Reiff's cases, coach Jim Caldwell indicated how they do in practice Thursday will be a telling key.
"Obviously, seeing how they function the day after they've gone through pretty extensive work and that'll be an evaluation all through the week," Caldwell said. "Tomorrow I'll tell you the same thing, see how they come through on Friday and the next day I'll tell you the same thing on Saturday. We'll wait and see, see how they do.
"But they handled [Wednesday's] workload pretty well, let's put it that way."
The only Lions player not at practice is defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who remains sidelined with a knee injury and has an undetermined timetable for his return.
Now, though, there is going to be at least one question mark at Gillette Stadium.
Running back Reggie Bush, who has practiced on a limited basis all week with that lingering ankle injury, is officially questionable .
If Bush doesn't play, Detroit will once again go with heavy usage for Joique Bell along with increased work for Theo Riddick. It would probably be a similar plan to last Sunday against Arizona, when Bell rushed for 85 yards.
Only two players are completely out for Detroit: right guard Larry Warford and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
Jason Jones, who told Detroit reporters on Friday his personal absence was dealing with his sick child in Tennessee, returned to practice Friday and is probable. Golden Tate appeared on the injury report for the first time this week -- limited in practice with a hip injury. He is probable for Sunday, though.
Who would have thought that at the beginning of the season? The playoffs and more appear to be a distinct possibility for Detroit and we discuss what is going on with the team right now in this week's Lions Mailbag. To ask a question of the Mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by my Facebook page to ask the question.
Now onto this week's queries.
@mikerothstein: Yes and no. I think the way the Lions are using it now is smart. It offers a faster change of pace during the typical hurry-up, two-minute situations and that can throw defenses back a little bit. The main reason the hurry up wouldn't really work with the Lions, in my opinion, is how much they can formationally substitute on a single play. You might see anywhere from two-to-four different players on the field per play and going no-huddle in that situation will just lead to errors. When Detroit has used no-huddle late in games, it has typically kept the same personnel on the field throughout, save a running back switch or two. That's why I would avoid it.
@mikerothstein: Hey, this question has more relevance now! It would appear that the Lions will have their full complement of tight ends Sunday for the first time since the end of September, so there shouldn't be any mixing or matching going on just to find the right personnel. That said -- and this is just a guess -- but I'd say Joseph Fauria is going to have the most receptions for the Lions tight end group Sunday. With Fauria and Eric Ebron back, Brandon Pettigrew heads back to more of a blocking role. Ebron is still learning as a rookie and Fauria provides that tough height matchup that could cause issues for Arizona. Just a wild guess on stat line, but let's say four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown for Fauria and three for 35 for Ebron.
@mikerothstein: As good as Moore was throughout his Lions career, probably not. His 670 catches don't put him in the top 20 in NFL history. His 9,174 yards won't either. Keep in mind Calvin Johnson -- who is a future Hall of Famer -- has closed in or passed all of Moore's records in less than eight seasons while Moore played 11 in Detroit. Plus, Moore plays a position that has exploded over the years, so his numbers will continue to be dwarfed. Moore was an excellent receiver for the Lions and belongs in the Hall of Great, but probably not in the Hall of Fame. This story in FiveThirtyEight illustrates the issue for Moore all too well. Look at the other guys -- many of them Moore's contemporaries -- and his numbers just don't measure up.
@mikerothstein: Yes. I'm of the belief -- and I've said this on the radio this week -- that the Lions can beat anyone they play if they are playing the game in Detroit. Away from Ford Field, though, is entirely different. No matter what happens in the desert on Sunday, I still will be picking New England and Green Bay to beat the Lions in the regular season when they travel to Massachusetts and Wisconsin. The only thing that would change my mind there would be injuries. Don't know if the Lions could win in New Orleans in the playoffs, either. Or Seattle, if they had to go there.
@mikerothstein: I do. Even though he hasn't been playing quite to the level of his rookie year, Larry Warford has been Detroit's best lineman this season. He's been really strong in pass protection and decent enough against the run. Plus, he has a very good chemistry with both right tackle LaAdrian Waddle and center Dominic Raiola. They trust him. Travis Swanson is a rookie -- and while the Lions are very high on him, there will be a learning curve here. It doesn't help that Swanson gets Arizona, New England and a good Chicago front four in his first three likely starts. Quite the NFL introduction.
@mikerothstein: Sure, why not, although so much can change in the NFL between now and that last week in December. Take last year as an example. Now, this team is built a lot differently, both mentally and depth-wise, than the 2013 version of Detroit that skidded into the abyss of no playoffs over the season's final two months. But this is a difficult stretch coming up for Detroit. Go 3-0 or 2-1 in it and the Lions are legit contenders for the NFC crown. Go 1-2 and they still look good. Being winless the rest of November would be a bad look, but they'd still have time to rebound.
“It’s not too bad,” Warford said. “But it’s up to them how long they want to keep me out.”
Warford said the injury came when center Dominic Raiola’s man moved out of a block and fell into the back of his knee. It bent Warford back, and while he stayed in for one more play, he also knew that he was hurt.
Warford couldn’t sustain himself when a Miami defensive player tried to move inside on him and he realized he had to come out of the game.
For a player who has missed less than a handful of snaps in his career, this is a different feeling.
“I was pretty mad,” Warford said. “It sucks because I really wanted to play that game against that front. Having played and not really missed a snap except for one where I had to come out because of a substitution rule.
“I wanted to keep that streak going, but stuff happens and you can’t really help it.”
He’ll be replaced by rookie Travis Swanson, who saw the first extended action of his career against the Dolphins.
“You know your time is going to come at some point,” Swanson said. “You just don’t know when. I could tell [on] that first play Larry got hurt that he might have to come out at some point.
“So just get ready. As far as playing guard in there, I thought it went good.”
The Lions have dealt with injuries all season long, but now the team is in a bit of a jam because those injuries are starting to pile up on an already fragile offensive line. Considering Detroit faces an Arizona run defense that is third in yards per game allowed (78.56) and fourth in yards per rush (3.35) in the NFL, that is going to be a problem Sunday.
Detroit gained 3.3 yards per carry against Miami, and if they are without both right guard Larry Warford (likely) and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (unknown), it is going to be a major issue for the offense. The Lions will likely slide rookie Travis Swanson in to replace Warford as they did against Miami.
Right tackle is another issue and becomes a little trickier if Waddle is out. When he had been injured in the past, the Lions used a rotation of rookie Cornelius Lucas and veteran Garrett Reynolds at right tackle and could do so because of the talent and experience of Warford. Without him, the Lions are going to have to stick to one player -- likely Lucas -- if they are going to have any success.
Don't be surprised if Detroit ends up looking more to quick passes into the flat or running over the center or left side of the line. According to Pro Football Focus, Detroit has already been doing that somewhat, as they have 35 rushes over center, 25 in the gap between center and left guard and 23 between left guard and left tackle. The problem is they haven't averaged more than 3.3 yards a carry in any of those gaps, so this has to improve. In the passing game, this could also mean more quick reads and short passes for Matthew Stafford instead of longer-developing routes to mask potential problems on the line's right side.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Larry Warford doesn’t have the name recognition of Nick Fairley or the longevity of Stephen Tulloch or the star power of Calvin Johnson. But when you’re looking at injuries that could become major factors for the Detroit Lions this season, losing their right guard to a left knee injury could be at least equally as devastating.
The Lions had Golden Tate and others to step in and at least fill some of the void Johnson’s absence left. A combination of Tahir Whitehead, who had some experience on the field, and DeAndre Levy handling play calls slid in for Tulloch. The Lions have always had confidence in C.J. Mosley to step in and play for Fairley -- and the defensive line is a rotation anyway.
But Warford? He’s being replaced by a rookie, Travis Swanson, who saw his first extended offensive playing time Sunday against the Dolphins. And while Swanson handled himself well enough for a debut, that is now a spot of weakness on the offensive line that defenses can exploit, especially if right tackle LaAdrian Waddle ends up missing time, too.
“Any time that you have a guy that’s played as long as he’s played, obviously any time we have any sort of injury at any position and the guy has a bevy of experience and he’s replaced by a guy who doesn’t have as much experience, you’re obviously lose that part of it,” Caldwell said. “He’s obviously been playing extremely well, and if he’s not able to play this week, then we’ll get somebody ready to go.”
Offensive line play is all about cohesion and comfort level, something obvious when Waddle was out in September. The Lions just didn’t seem as smooth as a unit without their typical starting five in. Now, Warford might be gone for a while and they have to slide Swanson in.
While there is confidence in Swanson from the Lions’ vets -- including the guy he’d be playing next to, center Dominic Raiola -- Warford was turning into one of the league’s better guards. According to Pro Football Focus, he has been the Lions’ top pass blocker this season and in the middle of a rough offensive line when it comes to run blocking. His two sacks allowed are tied for the lowest among the Lions’ regular offensive linemen.
He rated as the 19th-best guard in the league by PFF and 14th against the pass. While those rankings may not sound too impressive, the way he plays comparatively to the guy who will be replacing him is a pretty large downgrade.
Of course, a season ago, there were questions about whether another rookie third-round pick could handle being thrust into a starting role. That player was Warford, and he had a better rookie season than any offensive lineman.
Unless a Lions rookie offensive lineman accomplishes that for the second straight season, losing Warford for any period of time could be another major blow to the team’s offense.
On defense. In seventh grade. When a fumble literally dropped into his hands.
"I don't know what happened," Warford said. "But I didn't get the ball. I was so excited, too. I was like I was so open, like, Yeah. Awww."
What happened was the trick play was completely snuffed out by the Minnesota Vikings, resulting in a 4-yard sack of Matthew Stafford pushing the Lions out of the red zone and eventually ending up in a 44-yard missed field goal from Matt Prater.
But had the play worked on 1st-and-10, it might have been a highlight for a long, long time.
"I was excited about it," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "But we couldn't get it done."
Stafford had the Lions line up in an empty formation, with two receivers to his right and three players to his left, including the sixth offensive lineman, Travis Swanson, lined up in the middle of the trips receivers on the left.
Swanson was ineligible on the play, which is how Warford ended up being an eligible receiver after he flipped to right tackle for a play with LaAdrian Waddle inside at guard.
When the ball was snapped, Swanson threw his hands up and started backpedaling as a decoy. He wasn't eligible to do anything on the play, but the plan was to have him fake as if Stafford was throwing him a bubble screen, which he was not.
Actually, the Vikings defense seemed completely unconcerned with Swanson lined up out wide.
As that was happening, Warford ran down the middle of the field and past Minnesota linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who likely was supposed to cover him, leaving him open. But the Detroit offensive line struggled to contain the Minnesota rush, forcing Stafford to scramble immediately before getting sacked by Everson Griffen.
Had Stafford been able to make the throw, Warford had a plan.
"I would have caught it and I would have been on Top 10," Warford said. "I was just going to shake everybody's hand like a man and like I had been there before. That's what you're supposed to do, right?
"Wouldn't have any elaborate celebration. I would have just shaken everybody's hand like a man, you know. Thank you for your contribution and all that."
Instead, Warford must continue to live in the land of what-ifs. And what a depressing land that appears to be for the offensive lineman. Considering there is film of the unsuccessful play now, it might never happen again.
"When we called it, it was like, here we go, I'm about to be the hero," Warford said. "And I wasn't the hero. So it happens. I was happy that he called (it). Obviously he had faith in my catching abilities, but it didn't go down as planned.
"I'll never have that opportunity again."
Caldwell explained the purpose of the play and the package is to potentially have a mismatch or the Vikings defense lose track of players with Swanson out wide and Warford and Waddle in different spots on the line. Sometimes, it causes issues. Against Minnesota, "it did not give them a problem."
And while Caldwell was joking about it Monday after Detroit's 17-3 win, he did seem saddened no one could see whether or not Warford -- having never done this before -- had good hands. Since Caldwell insisted he did.
"Good, good," Caldwell said. "I'm sad you didn't get a chance to see it."
The Lions invested a lot of money in their offense over the past three seasons, but if they can’t keep quarterback Matthew Stafford upright and not running for his life, none of that will matter. The Lions, who face Minnesota on Sunday, have to do a better job of protecting Stafford. He's been sacked 17 times in five games.
The Lions are 31st in the league in sacks per dropback at 8.3 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information, after being second in the NFL last season at 3.6 percent. While injuries to LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard appeared to be part of the issue at first, it looks like the problem is bigger than any one player. A bigger potential concern is the Lions were beaten soundly by a Bills defense that rarely blitzed, sending five or more rushers only 10.3 percent of the time.
One way the Lions can fix this is to have Stafford get rid of the ball faster. He’s holding on to the ball for 2.48 seconds before the pass, a fraction slower than last season. However, in the NFL, a fraction of a second can make all the difference.
There’s also this: In the past two weeks, Detroit has faced two of the NFL’s top pass rushes -- including that of the Jets, which is ranked No. 1 in the league. Facing a more middle-of-the-road group in Minnesota might help start building some confidence to fix what ails the Lions' line right now.
2. How the line protects: Detroit getting tackle LaAdrian Waddle back in the lineup should help the Lions on multiple levels. Waddle is one of Detroit’s best pass-blockers, and his chemistry with guard Larry Warford should improve the right side of the line instantly in run and pass blocking. Every lineman I spoke with this week praised the job Cornelius Lucas and Garrett Reynolds did in Waddle’s absence, but all also acknowledged that Waddle being back should help a unit that has allowed 11 sacks in 2014.
3. How the Lions pressure Kyle Orton: The Lions have been pretty good about mixing up their blitzes and coverages over the first four weeks of the season, leading to the league’s top-rated defense. It will be interesting to see how the Lions scheme for Orton, who has never been a dual-threat quarterback (282 rushing yards) or a particularly accurate one (career completion percentage of 58.5 percent). Expect Detroit to get after Orton, who has started four games for Dallas over the past two seasons, early to see if they can fluster him into rusty mistakes.
4. The reaction to Schwartz: The Buffalo defensive coordinator said Friday "it doesn’t matter" how he is treated in his return to Detroit. Well, Schwartz has always been known as a contrarian. While he may believe right now that it won’t matter and that he won’t have any emotional pull, he did spend five years of his life here and was responsible for many of Detroit’s current players ending up with the Lions, including Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, DeAndre Levy and Ndamukong Suh. So at the very least there will be a lot of familiarity for him this weekend. Considering one of the last images of him in Ford Field is getting into it with Detroit Lions’ fans, it certainly should be an interesting reaction all around when he shows up.
The New York Jets have one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL and have proven to be able to rush the quarterback well out of its 3-4 defense. When the Detroit Lions head to suburban New York City on Sunday, they’ll have to fix their lingering issue at right tackle if they are going to have a shot this week.
According to Pro Football Focus, the combination of Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas gave up a quarterback sack, a quarterback hit and two hurries on Matthew Stafford against Green Bay and Julius Peppers last week. That’s an issue the Lions are going to have to fix with defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and outside linebackers Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace lined up against the right tackle. PFF also said both graded in the bottom 20 percent of pass blocking efficiency last week.
The Lions can solve this in one of three ways. The easiest would be hoping starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle -- who plans on practicing Wednesday -- improves enough from his calf strain to rejoin the lineup Sunday.
If he can’t go, the Lions can either commit tight end Brandon Pettigrew to the right side of the line next to Reynolds or Lucas to provide extra help, although that could hinder some of Joe Lombardi scheming with the rest of Detroit’s offensive pieces.
The other option is to either stick with Lucas or Reynolds to let him build chemistry with right guard Larry Warford throughout the game instead of playing both players, turning the position into a potential turnstile for the Lions' offense and Jets' defense.