By: Will Burchfield
Taylor Decker knows how eagerly Lions fans were awaiting his return. He nodded when it was mentioned in his postgame interview on Sunday following Detroit’s win over Cleveland.
And, of course, it’s a feeling he experienced himself.
“It had been a long, long time since I’ve been able to play football, since Seattle last year that I actually strapped it up. Five months since I’ve done any football stuff. So it was good to back out there, get my feet wet and try to get settled back in,” Decker said.
The left tackle missed the first nine games of the season after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder during OTAs. He declined to slap a grade on his season debut, in which he split time with Brian Mihalik, but acknowledged it took some time to adjust to the pace of play.
“In practice you can try to simulate it as much as possible going against guys, but game speed’s a different thing. I had to get back out there for a couple drives and get my feet wet. There was no other way around it. It might not feel great when you first get out there, but you settle in,” Decker said. “It’s still football. It’s what I do every day.”
Though the coaching staff had Decker on a snap limit to ease him back into action, he was thrust into the fire when called upon. He spent most of his day blocking defensive end Myles Garrett, the first overall pick in this year’s draft.
“He’s the real deal. Obviously a freak athlete,” Decker said. “But as with any week, there’s always going to be a good pass rusher, so it’s not like you can (say), ‘Oh, I’ll come back this week because it won’t be as tough of a matchup.’ It’s always going to be tough.”
Decker showed some early rust on Sunday. Garrett beat him on a power rush in the first quarter, after which Mihalik subbed in. But Decker improved as the game wore on and mostly kept Garrett in check.
Said Garrett, “Most of the time when I was in there, he was in there. He’s a good player. He got to come off the ball and he’s a good pass protector. There wasn’t anything going on between us. There was a good contest.”
Jim Caldwell declined to talk about the rotation between Decker and Mihalik, but Decker said it was all part of the plan.
“I was told about that going into the game. I’m not here to question the coaching decisions. I trust what they do,” said Decker, who played every snap last season. “Went in when they told me to, came out when they told me to.”
As to whether he’ll be on a snap limit moving forward, he said, “That’s a question for coach.”
Decker, an All-Rookie selection in 2016, is a crucial member of the Lions’ offense. There was no downplaying the significance of his injury this summer, and the Lions certainly felt his absence through the first nine games. Three different players logged time at left tackle and Matthew Stafford was sacked 26 times, the second most in the NFL.
Decker’s return will fortify the offensive line in a big way, but he cautioned the chemistry might not be instant.
“I think I still need to get more settled in because I’ve been gone for a long time and there’s been guys that have been filtered through there. But just from a personality standpoint, it’s just fun to be out there with (the offensive linemen). We all get along really well, it’s a fun group to be a part of. More than anything, that’s what I missed,” he said.
When he was sidelined, Decker did everything he could to keep himself sharp, from watching film to attending meetings.
“I tried to stay as engaged as possible so when I did come back it would hopefully translate to a midseason form sooner,” he said.
He’s not there yet, but he’s cleared the biggest hurdle.
“I didn’t get a training camp, I didn’t get a preseason, I didn’t get eight games so far, so I have to accelerate my pace to get back into football shape, and I think I am in pretty decent football shape,” Decker said. “I’m just going to follow the plan that the coaches lay out for me.”