A Look At Why A Healthy Taylor Decker Could Underpin the Detroit Lions 2018 Season
In the past few years, there has been a shift in the team culture surrounding the Detroit Lions locker room and front office. A record of 9-7, barely missing the playoffs, is no longer acceptable within the organization, which was shown by the firing of head coach Jim Caldwell. GM Bob Quinn has done a pretty decent job filling the depth of certain units, however, there are still some positions that need to improve if the Detroit Lions are going to have a realistic chance of winning their first playoff game since 1991. But which of the struggling positions are the most important in determining the success of this season? The majority of the fanbase will say the run game, and rightfully so. The Lions run game has been absolutely atrocious in previous years, ranking as the worst running team two out of the past three seasons. Some might even say that the defensive line needs to improve as it was an area of weakness last year, which hasn’t been addressed a whole lot this offseason. Granted that the running and defensive line play do need to improve, but I believe that the position group that will determine the success of the Lions’ season is going to be the offensive line.
Why the offensive line?
When Taylor Decker went down with a torn labrum in the 2017 offseason, there was a wave of concern for Lions fans. It seemed like a typical Detroit Lions moment, after getting our hopes up that a position of need would be significantly improved, all our positivity comes crashing down. Bob Quinn had already spent a significant amount of cap space in signing TJ Lang and Rick Wagner earlier in the offseason and had limited options to try and replace an up-and-coming left tackle (something which is extremely difficult to find). Quinn finally settled for Greg Robinson – we all know how he performed in his one year stint in Detroit.
Decker’s injury created a domino effect on the rest of the offensive line, with every starting lineman except Graham Glasgow missing at least one game due to injury. Because of this, an offensive line that many thought would be one of the best in the league was actually one of the worst. Football Outsiders even had the Lions offensive line play as the worst in run blocking (no surprise here) and ranked 21 in pass blocking. This is something that the whole offensive line needs to work on, and new OL Coach Jeff Davidson has his work cut out for him. If Taylor Decker can stay healthy and improve on his rookie season, and the rest of the line can stay healthy, this offensive line could jump from one of the worst in the league to one of the best. In addition, an improved offensive line can help many other different positions.
First things first, a working offensive line is going to open up many holes in the running game which new running backs LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson can utilize. This will obviously jumpstart the Detroit Lions running game and could result in a drastically different and better running game. Next, if the offensive line can keep Matthew Stafford from getting hit, and give him more time to throw, the passing game can become even better. Bear in mind it’s already one of the best in the league. And finally, both the offensive and defensive line go hand in hand. With a higher level of play from the OL, the defensive line will be challenged more and more during every practice, which will force them to learn and improve from their mistakes, even though there is no superstar on the DL (unless you consider Ziggy Ansah a superstar. I wouldn’t right now, simply due to the fact that he has had injury problems his whole NFL career). If all of these pieces come together, this team will be scary good and could even make a Super Bowl run.
Why is Taylor Decker going to be the most important offensive lineman?
Firstly, it’s because he plays arguably the most important position on the offensive line: left tackle, protecting Matthew Stafford’s blindside. Stafford, being the most important piece of this Lions team, and potentially any Lions team in history if he brings a Super Bowl to Detroit, simply cannot take 47 sacks and 93 QB hits (last year’s figures). This number needs to be reduced in a significant way if there is to be any realistic hope of winning a playoff game. Next, it’s because Taylor Decker will finally be 100% this season. Since Decker tore his labrum, he hasn’t been the same. Bryce Rossler of Lions Wire did an amazing in-depth article that details exactly how Decker’s injury affected his play by analyzing the timeframe of the injury, the type of surgery Decker underwent, and technique that showed that Decker was still recovering from his injury as well as being rushed back into action. This is further shown, if you look at Taylor Decker’s stats you will be able to see that the injury affected him a significant amount. In his rookie season, Decker only allowed four sacks while playing in 16 games. In 2017, after Decker returned from his injury, he allowed four sacks in half as many games.
Once Taylor Decker is fully healthy, which he currently is, he will improve significantly from his underwhelming performance last year. Lastly, there are many connections between Decker’s old college team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and with some of the new coaching staff. To start off, new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson was an offensive guard for OSU. As a senior at OSU, Davidson earned All-Big Ten honors and was also selected as co-captain. Just by attending the same collegiate football program as Decker will yield a significant amount of benefits towards improving Taylor Decker’s level of play. Davidson is able to talk to Urban Meyer’s staff and find out some information about Decker’s style of play and use that to improve the offensive line as a whole. Even if Davidson didn’t approach the current OSU coaching staff, the relationship Davidson will have with Decker just by being a part of the same collegiate football program will help build a strong relationship between the two. This intangible of having good relationships with coaches is often overlooked, but it can be the difference between an NFL player succeeding or failing.
Furthermore, new Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia also has some Ohio State University connections. In fact, earlier this off-season both Belichick and Patricia went to Ohio State and walked through drills with the Buckeyes, talking to players and coaches alike. As an NFL head coach and one who is a rocket scientist at that, Patricia almost definitely (there is no way to be 100% sure without asking him) talked to Decker’s old collegiate coaching staff to find out more information about him as well. And finally, Davidson and Patricia were both coached under Bill Belichick at one point in their career.
Under Belichick, the Patriots have only had four players on their OL earn Pro Bowl spots since 2009, many of which were a Pro Bowler for one season only. Yet, each and every year, the offensive line is at least middle of the pack and never near the worst in the league. This goes to show that even though the OL coaches have changed year in and year out for the Patriots, Belichick knows how to work an OL so that their prized QB won’t get pummeled every week. Both Patricia and Davidson learned from Belichick, and learning the specifics is only going to help Decker improve. Now if we look to the preseason, Detroit Lions fans are not inspired with hope about the upcoming season. The whole team has not been playing well, and the OL is no different. In each preseason game that he has played in, Decker has not played particularly well, for right now we can chalk it up to the game plan and scheme decisions due to the preseason (this might change if the poor play continues into the regular season). If Decker steps his game up, the rest of the OL will also improve as a unit and if the OL can play well, the Detroit Lions can do some serious damage to the league. All of these reasons are why the OL is going to be the key to success, and why Decker is going to be key to that unit.