Inside the Game: OL prepared to take leap forward

With the youthful trio of Dominic Raiola, Jeff Backus, and Stockar McDougle, including the veteran presence of Ray Brown and Tony Semple, the 2003 Detroit Lions are expected to field their best offensive line in the last five years. In this week's edition of <i>Inside the Game</i>, Lions' insider Mike Fowler takes an in-depth look at the improving offensive line of Detroit.

(ALLEN PARK)- The overhaul of the Lions offensive line is complete.  Actually, it was completed last season when the Lions dealt journeyman Brendan Stai to the Washington Redskins.

Despite the fact Detroit took a big cap hit in doing so, Stai was the biggest liability on an offensive line that rated as the worst in the NFL two years ago.  Instead, Detroit signed ageless guard Ray Brown, who was released from the San Francisco 49'ers, despite the fact that Brown was still playing in the NFL at the unheard of age of 40.

But Brown, 6-5, 318, has become a stabilizing force in Detroit's interior unit, mentoring young tackle Stockar McDougle and helping to speed up his development this off-season.  The result is Detroit is expected to field their best offensive line in the last five years.

"It's just a blessing to be playing again," the 16-year veteran said. "I think the 49ers felt my term came to an end. This is where I was wanted."

The middle of the unit will be anchored by third-year center Dominic Raiola  Raiola is the member of the unit most on the spot.  Detroit has been unable to get the kind of push upfront that they've wanted in their run game from Raiola.  But the team expects that all to change.   They expect Raiola to blossom into the kind of pivot man they envisioned when they took the Hawaii native in the second round out of Nebraska.  

"He opens up the weight room in the morning and closes it at night," Lions president Matt Millen told the Sporting News. "And he bench-presses 160-pound dumbbells."

Detroit feels especially solid on the corners with McDougle returning for his fourth season along with fellow third year tackle Jeff Backus.  While never publicly complaining, Backus was hobbled all season by nagging injuries including a sprained knee he suffered in training camp.   If he can remain healthy, Detroit has a solid guy to protect quarterback Joey Harrington's blind side.

Many have felt that the weak link in Detroit's offensive line is guard Tony Semple, but Semple keeps proving the doubters wrong.  The undrafted free agent out of Memphis just keeps beating back challengers.  While higher draft picks (including former #1 choice Aaron Gibson, teammate McDougle, Stai and teammates Kerlin Blaise and Matt Joyce) have all tried to unseat him, Semple remains the Lions starter at left guard next to Backus.   The two have developed a chemistry playing together and the team isn't in a hurry to break that up.

Meanwhile, McDougle is the man that has turned the most heads this off-season.  McDougle has lost nearly 35 pounds this off-season and wants to be quicker and stronger. "I just figured it was time to grow up and really apply myself," McDougle told the Detroit Free Press, "not only on the field during the season but in the off-season as well.   "I really dedicated myself to my diet and my conditioning."

The fourth year pro from Oklahoma has been somewhat of an underachiever to date.  McDougle was one of the most highly rated tackles in the NFL draft, despite the fact that he was not an All-American and only second team all SEC.  McDougle was in an out of the Lions lineup with an assortment of injuries, which slowed his development.   Some scouts though felt McDougle would have trouble picking up an NFL offense.  One scout said of him prior to the draft, "When you tell him to block that guy, he'll come off and destroy him. But if he has to sit in there and listen to audibles and catch stunts and all that, I think it's going to be a real problem for him."

The scout proved to be a prophet. McDougle had a tough time but Detroit expects him to be a real anchor after a season working with Brown.  Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci says that McDougle has been working closely with Brown and that there's "no better example of a professional" than Ray Brown.

While the Lions three younger players, McDougle, Raiola and Backus, are all expected to make gains in their overall productivity, it's playing together as a unit that Detroit believes will help this offensive line better.  They expect a cohesiveness that comes from having the same five guys in the same position for more than a season.

Most of all, they expect results from the unit that must play well for the offense to put points on the scoreboard.

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