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Film breakdown: Is Taylor Decker truly healthy?

I hope so, but it sure did not look that way in Minnesota.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to actually watching the replay of Sunday’s loss at U.S. Bank Stadium, a few film review topics like the run defense with Damon Harrison Jr. or the performance by the wide receiver corps without Golden Tate seemed like they could be interesting stories to follow. However, once the tape began rolling, something jumped off the screen that had not been specifically addressed by our other writers at Pride of Detroit yet: Taylor Decker’s ineffectiveness throughout the entire game.

Now, others have spoken to the poor performance of the offensive line overall in the road loss—our own Jeremy Reisman had a detailed analysis of the record 10 sacks taken by Matthew Stafford—but what happened at left tackle went beyond mere sacks or even pressure on the passer. Limited in practice for most of the week, starter Taylor Decker flipped suddenly to full participation on the Friday before the game.

Decker is normally an excellent tackle and widely considered to be a critical building block on offense. Along with newcomer Frank Ragnow, Decker’s combination of speed and explosiveness was a major reason the Lions’ early success running the ball in 2018 was left-handed, so to speak. That is why the degree to which he struggled on Sunday, and the fact the same issues persisted throughout the entire game, suggest Decker may not have been completely over his back issue from Week 8 heading into Minnesota.

Whiffing on blocks

Appearing stiffer and slower than usual, the former Buckeye uncharacteristically missed a number of relatively straightforward blocks. The first of these came on the third offensive snap of the game for Detroit.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 1Q (8:30). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.

This is a standard inside zone run to the left with 82 TE Luke Willson cutting across on a slice block. 68 LT Taylor Decker at the top is the front edge of the mass, lined up across 97 DE Everson Griffen. Unfortunately for 33 HB Kerryon Johnson, Griffen blows right by Decker and trips him up behind the line of scrimmage.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 2Q (6:58). Second-and-5 at the Minnesota 27.

This image shows the protection from the tackle box All-22 angle on the diving 15-yard catch by 19 WR Kenny Golladay down the right sideline. Stafford calls track 50 at the line to designate 50 LB Eric Wilson as the Mike, leaving 54 MLB Eric Kendricks on the offense’s left side as the pick up read for the running back.

Kendricks does not blitz, so Kerryon Johnson is able to switch off and assist Decker, which is a really good thing: 99 DE Danielle Hunter effortlessly sidesteps Decker to the inside and has a free lane to Stafford if Johnson is not there.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 4Q (7:54). First-and-10 at the Detroit 41.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, we have Griffen sidestepping Decker the same way Hunter did in the second quarter. This was supposed to be a flea flicker, but by the time 29 HB LeGarrette Blount turns to flip the ball back to Stafford, he has a man in his face and has to eat the ball for a loss of 4 yards. While this went down in the books as a running play, Thom Brennaman asked Chris Spielman on the broadcast, “so in essence that’s like another sack.” Spielman immediately agreed this should have been an 11th sack: “Absolutely.”

Losing control of rushers

Vikings pass rushers kept Decker from setting his feet and latching on for control with devastating moves. A couple of times, rushers kept active with spin moves to apply pressure on Stafford. The first of these examples may have prevented an easy touchdown at the start of the second quarter.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 2Q (14:18). Second-and-8 at the Minnesota 8.

The first thing to focus on is Griffen on the left edge of the line rushing one-on-one against Decker. After taking an outside speed angle, the Pro Bowl defender spins to the inside and uses his right arm to maintain leverage against Decker. Running out of time, Stafford sails the ball out of the end zone to come back on third down for another shot.

The second thing to look at is Kerryon Johnson in the backfield. His first assignment is to protection read against Kendricks, who drops into zone coverage. That frees Johnson to release into a pass route, and he goes for an angle back toward the right hash. Notice how both linebackers (Kendricks on the left and Wilson on the right) widen. Wilson stays wide because Stafford is looking for 80 TE Michael Roberts down the seam.

If Griffen is delayed even a second or two more, the check down would have been Kerryon running into the open space between Kendricks and Wilson—right into Stafford’s view. That is an ultra-high percentage toss to a physical running back heading toward the goal line and a flat-footed zone defender (Wilson), which is the kind of situation we want to see in the red zone.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 2Q (6:12). Second-and-10 at the Minnesota 12.

Knocking on the door following 23 CB Darius Slay’s interception a little bit later in the second quarter, Griffen again beat Decker with a spin move to put pressure on Stafford. Granted, Hunter had 71 RT Rick Wagner beat with a vicious swim move and could very well have solo sacked the quarterback, but Griffen (credited with half of the sack) on the back side guaranteed there was no way to escape.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 2Q (1:31). First-and-10 at the Detroit 33.

We cap this section off with a non-spin move: 91 DE Stephen Weatherly simply bull rushes Decker straight back into Stafford for an embarrassing sack. This is the kind of play that makes you wonder how much strength Decker was able to bring to bear in this game; he normally does not get driven backwards 5 yards in a straight line to the quarterback like that.

The little things

Finally, there were a number of details tucked into plays that hinted at Decker or the Lions trying to set up an advantage for him. Especially in the first half, Decker was continually trying to get a jump on the snap, something that Chris Spielman mentioned a few times on the broadcast. Here are a few of the plays where they are most obvious on the angles available.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 1Q (2:32). Third-and-8 at the Minnesota 39.

This is the play where Stafford hit 11 WR Marvin Jones Jr. down the left sideline with a beautiful touch pass for 18 yards. We can see Decker’s left leg already going into his kick slide before the snap. Had the referees thrown a flag here, it would have likely derailed the drive.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 1Q (1:06). Second-and-8 at the Minnesota 19.

Two plays later, Stafford found Marvin again down the left sideline for 10 yards on a comeback route against tight man coverage. We can see Decker’s left leg again kicking early before the snap. His timing on the snap is really good and these stills are being taken literally one or two frames before the snap happens, so it would be difficult for an official to spot and flag it.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 2Q (7:38). First-and-10 at the Minnesota 32.

The above image is taken an instant before the snap on the play where Spielman actually mentions on the broadcast that Decker probably got away with jumping early. This is a 5-yard run by Kerryon Johnson, and the early launch out of his stance is Decker’s reaction to 42 LB Ben Gedeon trying to time the snap himself and shoot the left A gap. While the Lions were not penalized for any of these plays, opposing teams could talk to the officiating crew before the game and alert them to watch for this.

Late in the game, the Lions actually played 65 LT Tyrell Crosby in their last possession of the third quarter when their starter cramped up. After the defense got the ball back on 8 QB Kirk Cousins’ errant pitch, Decker re-entered the game and there were some modifications to how the Lions tweaked the play calls and protections to help their left tackle for the final possession.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 4Q (6:23). Second-and-6 at the Detroit 16.

Luke Willson gives Griffen a shove before releasing into his route, giving Decker a much easier protection assignment on this play.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 4Q (5:53). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 21.

On the very next play, Willson runs his vertical inside of Griffen, screening off the rush lane. Even if only by luck and not design, this forces the defender to wait a beat and provides time for Decker to set up.

2018 Week 9 at MIN 4Q (4:15). First-and-10 at the Detroit 49.

For our last example from the drive, we have the 6-yard sack given up by 79 RG Kenny Wiggins. What we are interested in is not Wiggins getting beat on the right side, but Roberts pushing Hunter aside on the opposite end of the line before releasing into his pass route. Again, this breaks the pass rusher’s momentum and helps Decker immensely.

Obviously none of us at Pride of Detroit are medical professionals with inside information about the physical condition of the players on the Detroit Lions. However, it is hard to believe that a player as skilled and consistent as Taylor Decker could turn in such a horrible game if he were completely healthy. He was beaten on moves and run assignments in ways we almost never see from him, and the worst episodes seemed to be near the end of the halves when sustained fatigue would have taken its worst toll.

It was good to see Decker’s name absent from the Wednesday practice injury report, and hopefully that means he really is on the mend. NFL players are notorious for being warriors and playing through pain, though. If there is any risk of another game like he had against the Vikings, Decker ought to take his time and truly get back to full strength. Crosby has been respectable in spot duty, and it is unlikely even rookie jitters from a new tackle would lead to another 10-sack game for the offense.

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