By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

In the absence of Taylor Decker, the goal for the Lions was simple: Survive.

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They’ve done that, and with Decker eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list for Sunday’s game versus the Steelers, the question now becomes this: When will he return?

Decker, who underwent shoulder surgery in June to repair a torn labrum, has been seen often in the Lions’ locker room of late and he’s long since abandoned the sling he wore in the aftermath of his operation.

The initial prognosis had him sidelined for four to six months. Sunday will mark about four months and three weeks since the date of his surgery.

Toward the end of last month, Caldwell said Decker was progressing toward a mid-season return.

“Yes. He’s making progress,” said Caldwell. “Obviously it’s going to be (up to) the doctors and the evaluation and all that kind of stuff.”

On Monday, following the team’s Week 7 bye, Caldwell was asked to explain the challenges Decker faces in returning from his injury and getting back into game shape.

“You mean, when that does happen? I think it’s just like anything else. It just takes a little time to get their timing back and physical nature of the game, and all of those things that go along with it. It’s a process, best way I could explain it to you,” Caldwell said.

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How long might that process take?

“Everybody’s different,” said Caldwell.

Though the Lions have stayed afloat without Decker, toting a 3-3 record through six games, they’ve begun to take on water. They’ve lost two straight and three of their last four, largely because the all-rookie left tackle left a void on the offensive line the team has been unable to fill.

Matthew Stafford has been sacked more times per game than any quarterback in the NFL, and Greg Robinson, Decker’s replacement, has been complicit in a number of those breakdowns. What figured to be a strength in the offensive line entering the season, following the signings of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, has been an obvious weakness.

Lang (back) and Wagner (leg) are banged-up themselves, though a week of rest likely did them well. At full health, there’s every reason to believe the Lions’ O-line can be one of the better units in the league. But Decker is the most important piece of the equation, a fact that’s become even more evident amidst Robinson’s struggles.

Stafford’s QB rating (89.3) is tied for 26th in the league — his partner, ironically, is reigning MVP Matt Ryan — and the Lions’ offense ranks 19th in yards per game (214). They have more problems than one, but the inability to protect Stafford has been the most glaring.

Three of Detroit’s next five games are against division opponents, and the NFC North looks entirely up for grabs. (The Vikings lead the way at 5-2, but the Lions already own a road win against them.) The team’s clearest path to the playoffs, at this point, runs through the division. It’s vital that Decker returns shortly.

Sunday is probably a long-shot, with the Lions’ Week 9 tilt versus the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers a more likely date for Decker’s debut. Whether he practices this week — and if so, to what degree — will help clarify his timetable.

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Either way, Decker can’t get back on the field soon enough.