Last Sunday, the most disappointing position group on the Detroit Lions lost its best player, as Larry Warford went down with a knee injury. Considering Warford is set to miss a "little bit" of time, I'd like to try and figure out what we'll get from the Lions' guards over the next few weeks. I'll take a look at Travis Swanson's debut, but first, let's talk about Rob Sims.
Writing this article bums me out a little, because I like Rob Sims. He seems like a good dude, and he gives better interviews than most guys on the roster. I've always thought his acquisition was one of the most underrated moves of the Martin Mayhew era -- four seasons of solid guard play is a nice return for a fifth-round pick and the immortal Robert Henderson. Getting a draft pick that turned into Willie Young was just a bonus.
But man, things have been rough for Sims this season. Even his Wikipedia photo seems depressed. Sims isn't solely to blame for the offensive line's struggles -- everyone in the front five seems to have taken a step back -- but he's the most glaring example of the unit's regression. At his best, he's been competent. At his worst, he's been something significantly less.
Sims is still a smart player. He's assignment-sound. He's never fooled by defensive line stunts in pass protection. He never gets buried helping on double-teams to let defenders run free on Matthew Stafford. His problems aren't in diagnosing plays, they're in actually blocking them. That's an issue if you're an offensive lineman. Stronger interior defensive linemen have had their way with Sims at times this season.
This is an image from the Lions' Week 5 loss to Buffalo. Maybe two seconds after the snap, Stafford is delivering the ball to Brandon Pettigrew on a 4-yard out (which is itself terrifying). Marcell Dareus is in Stafford's face as he throws, something that quick-hitting routes are supposed to prevent. Dareus lined up over Sims' outside shoulder prior to the snap. He gets blocked and still almost travels as far as Pettigrew on the play.
Sims has been driven backward off the snap at a regular clip this season. That holds true in the run game, as well. More often than not, Sims either doesn't get much push off the line or has trouble sustaining blocks. Here is Dareus once again abusing Sims to blow up a run play before it starts:
To be fair, Dareus has been doing this sort of thing to a lot of people this season. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs. But Sims' struggles have occurred even against lesser men. His limited success seems to be based more on his positioning than anything else. Too often, when Sims gets in space, he puts himself in the way of defenders without getting his hands on them. That's not terrible in and of itself, but it also presents more opportunities for opposing tacklers.
The Lions run a fullback lead with Joique Bell on this play. Sims' responsibility is to help Dominic Raiola secure the block on the 1-tech before reaching the second level to get his hands on the linebacker. Bell follows Jed Collins through the hole and simply has to read Sims' block to make his cut.
The problem is that Sims never actually makes a block. The running lane here is obvious, but since Sims can't get his hands on Curtis Lofton (No. 50), the linebacker is able to knife around him and bring Bell down for a minimal gain.
Sims is still a functional starting guard at times, and focusing on these negative plays obviously exaggerates his issues. But watching him on tape, there are virtually no plays that you rewind five times just to watch. (If you're into that sort of thing.) Warford had a lot of those last season.
Again, Sims' teammates aren't exactly bulldozing people either, so it's unfair to pile on him too much. But his play this season has been a far cry from his reliable, if unspectacular, norm. Sims is still only 30 years old, and given the late-career resurgences of guys like Raiola and Jeff Backus, it's entirely possible Sims fixes his issues and returns to a respectable level of play. He's a free agent after this season, so for his sake and the Lions', he'd better do it soon.
Enough with the doom and gloom, though. Let's turn to a guard on the opposite end of the career spectrum. Travis Swanson played the majority of offensive snaps last Sunday after the other half of The Lucky Ringo's went out. How did he do?
OH GOD NO.
Just kidding. Aside from being cast into the lake of fire on this play, Swanson didn't commit many noticeable gaffes last Sunday. (Even on that play, Stafford ended up with a 9-yard completion.) Reports on Swanson coming out of college suggested he needed to get stronger, and you can see that in his play. Like Sims, Swanson doesn't get a ton of push off the line, and he struggles a bit in one-on-one matchups with interior linemen. Overall, though, he held up reasonably well in pass protection.
His best plays came when he was on the move and able to hit gaps with a head of steam, which surprisingly may have revealed an honest-to-God strength in the Lions' run game: the "power" play.
This is single-back power. The outermost offensive lineman to the play side (in this case, Pettigrew) has to kick out the edge defender. Riley Reiff down-blocks the 3-technique, with assistance from Sims, who then goes to the second level to block the inside linebacker. The defining feature of the play is that the backside guard pulls to function as lead blocker. There isn't as much reading and cutting like you'd see in a zone blocking scheme. The running back has to get vertical quickly, which suits a more powerful straight-ahead runner like Bell.
Pettigrew actually gets tossed aside by the edge rusher, but as it happens, he gets tossed inside the linebacker, leading to a switch of assignments. Swanson adjusts on the fly and buries the outside linebacker. As you no doubt notice, Sims also gets his hands on the inside linebacker and rides him to the outside, creating an easy lane that Bell follows for 16 yards.
The Lions ran power out of multiple formations against the Miami Dolphins.
This is a more traditional power look out of the offset I. In this case, sealing off the outermost defender is Collins' responsibility, with Swanson once again pulling and leading Bell through the hole.
The 3-tech comes across Sims' face, taking himself away from the play's aiming point and essentially doing the guard's job for him. This frees up Reiff to get to the second level and block the linebacker while Collins and Swanson clear a path. Bell picks up 7 yards and a first down.
The Lions ran power to Sims' side as well, with moderate success. Every power play seemed to net at least 4 yards for the Lions last week.
I don't know if the Lions will have much success on the ground against the Arizona Cardinals, which are currently ranked fourth against the run in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Everything we've seen seems to suggest they won't. But, at least for one week, they had a play that served as their bread and butter in the run game. They'll run it on Sunday. Whether or not they succeed with it depends on getting one guard back on track and another into form as quickly as possible.