The Detroit Lions Must Break You, Part II: Bringing the pain
You met the personalities. So, how does the Lions' rugged offensive line go about bashing skulls in? A perfectly-cooked steak, old-school X's and O's and loads of confidence. Wins come next.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The smell is repugnant. Suffocating. An inescapable “stench,” as Taylor Decker describes. And once this stench seeps into the building, it is insanely difficult to fumigate. No franchise in the sport has been trying to rid itself of this vile odor longer than the Detroit Lions.
As the team’s starting left tackle details, it tends to creep into the stadium if the game’s close.
Take last season. Despite a jarring talent discrepancy, the 2021 Lions miraculously stayed in games vs. title contenders: the 49ers, the Ravens, the Rams. The fourth quarter would arrive. And maybe it was 99 percent subconscious and only 1 percent conscious, but there was still this very, very minuscule part of everyone’s competitive spirit that expected something to go wrong. By cutting players loose, by bursting with passion 24/7, Dan Campbell’s mission has been to eliminate such mental doom.
“The margins are so small,” Decker explains, “that you’re always looking for that little inch, that little extra thing you can do to get over that hump. Dan’s talked about this: When things aren’t going well, you can’t let that losing stench seep in and embed itself in your organization and your culture. And it’s hard to not let that happen.”
Again, Decker has been here since 2016. He knows that smell too well.
This offensive line’s coach, Hank Fraley, is a holdover from the previous regimen and admits he has seen players past flat-out quit on the team. When a season’s lost — into November, December — they stop doing the “extra stuff,” he says. They skip a lift. They don’t rehab in the cold tub. They coast through the day, then go home. Professional football becomes little more than a mundane 9-to-5 that pays the bills.
But last season, that wasn’t the case. Despite a 3-13-1 record, everyone continued to pour their energy into building something that’d last. Gradually, they extinguished that feeling of something inevitably going wrong.
“We’re on the brink of it,” Fraley says. “Hopefully, it breaks open this year.”
The key? Acknowledging the stench. Nobody pretends like the past doesn’t exist here. Campbell makes a point to remind players of how long it’s been since the Lions won anything of consequence. The stakes are clear: You were chosen to fix this. Honestly, this is an uncommon tactic for head coaches entrusted with morphing a perennial loser into a winner. Usually, coaches sprint the opposite direction as fast as they can. Privately and publicly, they distance themselves from the misery that preceded them because they had nothing to do with that misery.
Choosing to ignore all of that trash on the sidewalk while taking a Sunday stroll, however, doesn’t mean that trash doesn’t exist.
“You can tiptoe around what’s happened before but that doesn’t change the reality that it happened,” Decker says. “And that doesn’t change the reality that we’ve been trying to turn Detroit into a winner for a while now. Why not meet it head-on? You just have to be an adult about it and be professional about it. This is what the record says and it doesn’t matter if we lost six of those games by five points or less. Because we lost them. He’s done a real good job of instilling belief in the building.”
Late in games, the Lions are starting to believe. Defeating the Minnesota Vikings today and improving to 2-1 could even serve as a major tipping point toward expecting to win.
If it’s up to Campbell, everything will boil down to his offensive line.
In Part I of this series, we introduced you to the men injecting this belief. The guys who’d “die” for each other on the field. In Part 2, we explain how this core four — Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson and Frank Ragnow — goes about breaking the spirits of defenses and changing everything we think about the Detroit Lions. Other offensive lines around the league preach the same virtues — accountability, togetherness, etc. — before then getting steamrolled on gameday. Two games in, the Lions are averaging an absurd 7.2 yards per rush.
It’s no accident. The organization has made a concerted effort to bludgeon defenses across the head.
So much goes into beating the hell out of your opponent: Lifting weights. The X’s and O’s. Attitude.
And, of course, a perfectly cooked steak.
It took some prodding but everyone’s finally with the program here.
Each week, the linemen go out to dinner and, typically, it’s a steakhouse. A wise choice, too. Even by NFL Linemen standards, the behemoths here are built like redwoods. All nonsense at the table is swiftly reprimanded. Oh, Sewell loved the fact that vets didn’t pick on him as a rookie. The hazing here is benign compared to other teams — there’s no running around to get guys’ lunch every day. All Sewell needed to do was pick up the tab at one rookie dinner. Still, he was taken to school at the linemen’s first steak hangout. Growing up on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he never even heard of steak. Let alone eat it. Instead, he loaded up on pig, chicken and fish. So much fish.
Before heading to dinner, Sewell asked his Dad how to get his steak cooked and Dad advised he order it well done.
So, he did. There were unfortunately no cops present to immediately arrest Sewell, but he did receive cold glares from the others. “Like ‘What the hell? Do you want to eat a hockey puck?” Jackson remembers. The left guard implored Sewell to at least try medium-well. Sewell did. Sewell enjoyed it. Sewell now gets his steak cooked at medium. He won’t go further, noting that Halapoulivaati “Big V” Vaitai orders his steak rare and it looks freakin’ frozen. But this was substantial progress and he even coils in disgust upon hearing that Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes dips his steak in ketchup. “Oh no!” he says. “Yuck!”
Jackson loves a good ribeye, and if the restaurant has a strong rep? Sure, he’ll go medium-rare.
Each meal, the entire group grows closer.
“The No. 1 thing is you don’t want to let the guy down next to you,” Jackson says. “If you love the guy next to you and you want to be able to take it to the next level, you’ve got to be able to trust him and not be willing to let him down.
“The accountability in the room is through the roof.”
Inside a meeting room at the Lions’ practice facility, the group’s vivacious leader clenches a fist and holds it up. This is the analogy Hank Fraley fervently believes in. All five players coming together as one indomitable haymaker.
“If you slap somebody open-handed,” Fraley says, “it’s not as powerful. But if you come together and tighten your fist up? Now you hit somebody? Punch him? It’s a different result.”
Once the ball’s snapped, technique can go haywire. Assignments, too. But as long as all five linemen are playing at full speed — with cruel intentions — Fraley knows they’ll always dominate. That’s a true fist. Through his own 11-year career at center, Fraley was influenced by countless coaches. Dan “Bad Rad” Radakovic, who coached the Pittsburgh Steelers’ line back in the 70s. George Warhop. Juan Castillo. All tips from teammates were logged. Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas once told him that he squeezed the ball every time he was about to snap. Subtle tells can give any player’s intentions away.
Fraley considers himself a teacher, first and foremost, who needs to push different players in different ways. He correctly notes that he was never a Dermontti Dawson- or Olin Kreutz-level talent himself, but Fraley did find a way to last 152 games in the NFL. Not bad for an undrafted rookie out of Robert Morris. A seventh overall pick like Sewell is going to be able to pull off specific blocks and assignments a guy like him never could. So, no, Fraley would never ask Big V’s replacement, Logan Stenberg, to do too much. Identifying the specific strengths of each individual is critical. “What makes you the best player?” he says aloud. “That’s how you can develop guys.” And if this fist leaves defensive linemen hurting on Monday AM, they did their job.
His primary message is this: Toe the line.
These Lions play through the echo of the whistle. And after the whistle, he doesn’t want them putting up with anyone’s BS.
“If you’re touching our quarterback, we have to let them know,” Fraley says. “At least bark in their ear a little bit: ‘Don’t ever touch him again.’ It starts in practice a little bit with your teammates. But when you go in there it’s about competing and winning. That mindset and trying to change the mind. In the past, we’ve used ‘calloused mind.’”
All in all, opponents around the NFL need to wince in pain when they even think about the Lions’ offensive line. That’s the goal.
Make teams fear this unit.
Make teams know they’ll be spending all of Monday covered in ice packs the second they step onto the field.
“They know your name. They know, ‘We’re going to be a frickin’ 60-minute battle,’” Fraley says. “They’ll be hurting when they come out. We’ll be bruised up, too. But we laid it all on the line and gave it everything we had. I never want to come off the field and regret that we didn’t give it our all.”
This effect is contagious, too. It can permeate through the entire Lions roster. When this offensive line is taking names, kicking ass and rolling downhill, the physicality of everyone automatically increases. “Everybody,” the coach says, “feeds off of each other.” To the point where even spindly Amon-Ra St. Brown starts throwing himself into the run game as a nasty blocker. That always gets Fraley jacked. To the point where he jokingly tells the 203-pounder he should moonlight as a jumbo offensive tackle in Detroit’s heavy formations. St. Brown was unleashed as a runner in last week’s win over Washington, taking one jet sweep 58 yards.
Life in the trenches on the other side of the line of scrimmage can be quite satisfying. Defensive lineman may enjoy the act of tackling but — to Fraley — there’s always been something special about being able to knock that player out. To not only tell that player he won’t be touching the quarterback this afternoon, but promptly drive him 10 yards downfield when your offense runs the ball.
Says Fraley: “You get to be the bully. That’s what we want. The bully mentality.”
And who wouldn’t want to be part of something so powerful? At 0-10-1 into the month of December, nobody was waving the proverbial white flag. Fraley witnessed countless players grit through injuries because they believed in what Detroit was building long term. They did the math. They realized they’d have time to complete all necessary rehab by next April for 2022.
The alternative would’ve been more damning. Tapping out would’ve defied this team’s ethos.
The Lions finished 3-3. The air started smelling a little better at Ford Field with home wins over Minnesota, Arizona and Green Bay.
“That’s the mindset I want,” Fraley says. “Yeah, there’s nothing on the line to play for. But there’s pride. There’s a name on your back. There’s a brotherhood. The family. There’s nothing like it.”
The team’s starting center, Ragnow, cannot praise Fraley enough. He calls him a “phenomenal” coach. Other teams fielding a trio of backups inside would obviously go into the tank, but the Lions did not vs. the Commanders because Fraley’s a man with the rare ability to rally the troops, Ragnow adds, “no matter who the troops are.” He and Decker love giving their fiery coach plenty of fire right back. Ball-busting is the norm behind the scenes. As Ragnow explains, the coach knows “when to lay the hammer down” and when to back off. Assistant coaches can spend decades in the NFL failing to strike this balance.
The Lions are now prepared to field a winning football team and the No. 1 reason is that they play downhill on offense.
That’s why Jackson’s favorite Campbellism was when the head coach said there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Campbell cited Metallica’s song, “No Leaf Clover,” and the following lyrics: Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel. Was just a freight train coming your way. As Campbell explained to his team: “If you see a f--king light, it’s just a freight train. Put your head down and go to work.” That perfectly illustrates an NFL season. Right when you’re hurting — right when you’re nursing a bum ankle, four bruises, two scabs and God knows how much frustration from whatever happened the prior game — another matchup is merely days away.
There’s no time to lick your wounds, to exhale, to reflect.
Considering the Lions’ desired brand of football, this offensive line sets this standard.
“Grit with an offensive lineman is the name of the game,” Jackson says. “It’s not always going to be pretty. You’re going to face better athletes. It’s just a matter of who has more dog in ‘em and who has more grit to them. That’s what we’re built around. That’s what we’ve built ourselves on and pride ourselves on. Finishing. We embody the head-down, go-to-work, lunch-pail mentality. Every other sport, you’ve got your stars. The guys on the front cover. The ones who get all the deals. On the O-Line, we make it happen but we don’t get all the pretty and flashy things.”
This should be noted: The Lions are going to run into some bad, bad men.
Today, it’s Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter. Soon, it’ll be New England’s Matthew Judon and Dallas’ Micah Parsons and the New York Giants’ Kayvon Thibodeaux and Buffalo’s Von Miller.
To win, the Lions need their O-Line to be the bully. That won’t be easy.
“But you’re not going to bat an eye,” Decker says, “because you feel like our group is a bunch of badasses.”
Decker will never forget his baptism in 2016. The prior offseason, trainer and former Pro Bowl guard LeCharles Bentley warned the rookie out of Ohio State that Minnesota’s Everson Griffen would be a nightmare to block. His advice? Challenge Griffen. Midway through the season, they squared off and the Vikings’ new stadium was deafening. Detroit won in overtime. It wasn’t perfect, but Decker survived. The rest of his career, he tried to attack every challenge “head-on.” Because, in reality, every team now shoots a Griffen-like force out of a cannon.
Modern edge rushers boast 4.4 speed and 80-inch wingspans and 7 percent body fat. Even the body types of interior rushers have changed drastically. Gilbert Brown and Aaron Donald appear to be from completely different planets.
“They’re werewolves,” Decker says. “They’re freaks out there.”
The key is to seek and destroy on your terms. That’s why the Lions were so ecstatic to draft Sewell, a Polynesian “freak” of their own. He can hold down the right edge of this Lions offense. On the blind side, Decker has embraced the challenge so much that he actually enjoys pass blocking more than run blocking. You never hear linemen say this because it’s simply more natural to move forward, than backward. But there’s something about that island that Decker loves. He faced Za’Darius Smith several times in Detroit’s games vs. Green Bay. Confidence matters more than anything, he says, especially on third down in a 2-minute drill when everyone knows you’re passing. His confidence is soaring.
Good thing because Jared Goff is a throwback who operates as a mostly stationary quarterback from the pocket. Decker knows he must hold his block for six seconds for Detroit to make a play downfield, roughly half the time athletic QBs elsewhere need.
Of course, these Lions prefer to run the ball 30 times a game… and he’s A-OK with that. By turning back the clock, the Lions have completely taken defenses by surprise. We’ve seen this effect. To counterpunch streetballin’ quarterbacks, NFL front offices wrapped their loving arms around lighter linebackers. Then, to counter this in 2021, a few offenses started running the ball like it’s 1995. Wyatt Teller pancakes even became required viewing. Detroit’s approach is essentially all of this on steroids. The sample size is obviously small, but the Lions lead the NFL in points per drive (2.79) and points per game (35.5) behind an old-school gap scheme that’s unlike anything the game’s offensive wizards rely on.
Kyle Shanahan has run the ball plenty in San Francisco, but with a wide-zone scheme.
As more offenses copy the wide zone, more defenses ask their D-Linemen to tap the brakes and clog up 1 ½ gaps instead of ferociously attacking one gap. The goal is to muddy things up long enough for a linebacker or a defensive back to zip in for the tackle.
And here come the Lions flying upfield — vertically. Defenses aren’t ready.
A running back is directed to hit a specific hole and he hits it. Beyond any razzle, any dazzle, any overthinking, the Lions’ success boils down to 1-on-1 matchups up front. Campbell banks on his band of badasses dominating yours. If they do, game over. That’s a wrap. As much as football evolves, this has not. From Lombardi’s power sweep in the 60’s to today, the sport is still blocking and tackling to its core. Run… after run… after run… the Lions aim to demoralize you. And until the league outright makes this flag football, the ability to inflict and withstand such abuse can decide outcomes.
Suddenly, one Campbell line makes all the sense in the field. This is precisely what it means to tread water until you f--king bury a team.
“At its core, it’s ‘We have our guys. Can we move your guys?’” Decker says. “That’s the way I see it. Because on the line, if we’re able to run the ball, then it opens up play action. Then, they’re stacking the box and we can spread them out in empty and start throwing the ball into 1-on-1 coverage. Or maybe they’re in a soft zone. A lot of the game starts up front with the offensive line.”
To win in such an octagon, linemen need to be in shape. Whereas the Lions’ starting five played 69 snaps each against Philadelphia in Week 1, the Eagles cycled through waves of defensive linemen. Fletcher Cox ‘n co. each played in the 30s, so they’re always fresh. This is the growing trend. Defenses want to unleash fresh bodies at weary offensive linemen. In Buffalo, the front office has been drafting defensive linemen nonstop and it’s starting to really pay off.
Campbell and Fraley prepared for this. Detroit may possess the best-conditioned group of linemen in the NFL.
“Regardless of if that guy’s coming off the bench fresh,” Decker says, “you’re still expected to produce at that high level. It doesn’t matter. Nobody’s out there to save you. We have so many good skill players. If we do our job, we can put them in position to make plays. But if we don’t do our job first? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who’s out there.”
There’s no walking on eggshells. Players know they can ask why and how when it comes to anything coaches implement. As Decker explains, the lines of communication are always open. Nobody feels like a subordinate asking Fraley or Campbell anything at all. He has brought a ton of questions to them both. Without delving into specifics, Decker assures many “candid conversations” have been had since the head coach arrived. Conversations that’ve led to everything we’re starting to see this season.
It’s no different than a successful marriage. Letting a problem “fester,” he adds, ends up being far worse than what the reality of the answer is. The problem only metastasizes until — finally — detonating.
That’s when people get fired. That’s when a culture dies on site.
Thus, the honesty is always flowing here. Players appreciate Campbell’s authenticity. He’s nothing like Matt Patricia. This is no fake tough guy act. Decker believes the Lions are now ready to win those final few inches in this game of inches. Deep into the fourth quarter, he’s sensing less dread. These Lions, he’s certain, are “on the cusp.”
“We’re just getting those bits of that losing stench out of here,” Decker says. “And we have to get it all out.”
More than any chic new scheme, a steady offensive line can finish this job.
Adds Ragnow: “We take a lot of pride in what Coach Campbell says all the time — it’s grit. They showed that when him and Brad (Holmes) got in here and drafted Penei Sewell. That lays down what they thought. To put him with all of us. We’re trying to be physically dominating up front. We have to take it a game at a time but it’s going in the right direction and that gives us optimism. You know how offensive line play is. One week, they could all love you. The next week, they could all hate you and we should all be fired. We have to keep grinding and that’s what I love about our group. It’s a lot of guys that don’t get too high and don’t get too low. We all stay pretty dang steady.”
A right tackle who cut grass with a machete as a kid. A left tackle whose brothers saw unspeakable scenes in wars overseas. Interior linemen whispering prayers to deceased loved ones before taking the field. No doubt, this offensive line was made for Dan Campbell. The atmosphere he desires has only drawn this group closer. This entire O-Line group gets along and, Decker notes, that’s not always the case. Relationships can be beneficial or relationships can be parasitic and drain you.
Here they are ensuring young Penei Sewell understands what makes a good steak.
The end goal isn’t much different from what Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings are trying to accomplish.
These Lions want to have fun. Blasting away with a knee-biting mentality up front is a hoot.
“Yeah, we’re making a lot of money at this level,” Decker says, “and the stakes are really high. There’s a ton of fans in the stadium. But the teams that are doing the best look like they’re having fun. It sounds dumb. But it’s true. You’re going to play better when you enjoy what you’re doing. I think it started with getting the right guys here — building that bond, doing hard shit together — to where you just enjoy being out there with those guys. Then, you’re having fun. Then, you’re getting to go out there and compete on Sunday.
“This last game, it’s been a while since I had a sellout game here. Probably since my first or second game — where it’s been legitimately sold out. Packed. And I’m just like, ‘This is f--king insane. This is so cool. Let’s have fun.’ You know? ‘Let’s have fun. Let’s not let that doubt creep in. We literally practice this stuff every single day. And we have a bunch of good D-Linemen to practice against. Go out and do it again and have fun doing it. Just like a negative mindset can permeate through the team, fun energy can do the exact same thing. Tenfold.”
Yes, it was as bad as you can imagine before. Decker admits that the atmosphere under Patricia was… not good.
But he also knows nothing matters if the Lions do not win.
The NFL is a bottom-line business. Ragnow flat-out states that the Lions cannot sip the Kool-Aid everyone’s dying to dole out right now and Fraley is dead-on when he says “nothing sits right” when you lose. It makes everything worse. If Patricia would’ve won games, his cold approach would’ve been celebrated as Belichickian genius. So, we’ll see. Another three-win season would give these Lions no choice but to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate how they’re building this franchise. More losing will make all of his viral speeches seem cartoonish, not inspirational.
And we’ll all be wondering when the Lions will quit trying to run the ball and find a new quarterback already. In Goff, the Lions have chosen to bide their time at the sport’s most important position.
There’s no time for such questions, though. That freight train is coming and everyone is feeding off Dan Campbell’s energy. Especially this one-of-a-kind offensive line.
This brotherhood, Fraley promises, is as real as it gets.
“You feel it,” Fraley says, “and we want to give this city something to be proud of up front. They’re blue collar. We want to be blue collar. Let’s build something special here in Detroit.”
With that, Fraley pops up from his chair and hustles out of the room. It’s time for another meeting.
It’s time to (finally) win.
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