When the Detroit Lions offense took the field for the first time against the Jacksonville Jaguars the fans were introduced to a recurring name for the afternoon -- that of rookie offensive tackle Riley Reiff.
Reiff made his presence felt on the field and throughout the stadium early in the first quarter, as the PA announcer proclaimed his downfield eligibility for the first of several times.
“Number 71 is reporting as eligible,” echoed through the stadium. Fans ignored the message at first but became agitated as the visitors piled up the points and the message was announced repeatedly during the Lions offensive drives.
The fans even let out a rousing round of applause when Reiff was called for a holding penalty in the third quarter. The fans seemed more delighted by the number announced (71) than the penalty.
Reiff enjoyed his most extensive role against the Jaguars last week while participating in 33 plays, the most of any game he’s played thus far, proving that he belongs on the field.
“Yeah, he’s given our run game an incredible boost,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “The offensive line has blocked very well and he’s a big part of that… He’s contributed in a lot of different ways mainly because he’s a good player. But particularly the edge, you know, this game they were trying to clog up the middle and we had to bounce it outside or cut it back and that’s hard to do without an edge blocker and Riley’s made a big difference for us there. And in addition to his pass blocking. We’re not just one dimensional when he goes on the field, it’s not always a run. He can protect up and we have ability to take shots down the field.”
Reiff helped seal the edge – among other things – as he played a significant role in the win against the Jaguars. Reiff, as aforementioned, enjoyed his most significant portion of playing time in the season and was a factor in helping the team register its best rushing performance of the season with 149 yards and four touchdowns.
The addition of packages including Reiff is not intended to catch the other team off guard rather they are simply a mechanism to get the team’s talent on the field.
“I don’t think anybody has been surprised by it,” said Schwartz. “We’ve been using it for a while now. We have a lot of things that we do within that package, and we’re not the only people in the NFL that use it so it’s not like it’s a surprise to anybody… So I think it’s just a matter of how he’s doing rather than what we’re doing. He’s blocking well both run and pass. He’s a good player and it gets another good player on the field for us.”
The Lions have continuity on their offensive line – an important element in the trenches. For that reason, combined with the line’s effective play this season, Reiff hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup but when you draft a talented rookie, you can’t just leave him on the bench.
That’s why offensive coordinator Scott Linehan went to work this offseason, studying effective packages around the league that leverage extra offensive linemen.
“I know New England did a lot of that with their young tackle a year ago,” said Linehan. “(I) kind of studied that in the offseason and felt like that was probably a good way to introduce a young talented player—not slowly, but kind of giving him just little pieces to our offense.”
Linehan and the Lions have repeatedly indicated that Reiff ideally projects to the tackle position for them but he has demonstrated value in many different roles already. During training camp, he spent time at all of the positions on the offensive line, save for center.
“He had to go through training camp obviously to learn his position and other positions on the o-line, but once you get into the season, start using, finding ways to get your best players on the field and he’s certainly one of them,” said Linehan. “And we’ve got big plans for him and his future to play on the offensive line for us.”
Those big plans aren’t only for upcoming years but they are also for upcoming games.
On Sunday, Minnesota fans will have “71” ringing in their ears as well.