Niyo: With OL Decker possibly out for opener, Lions’ tall task may get taller

Detroit News

Allen Park — The ends are near.

And for the Lions, a franchise for which trouble always seems to be just around the corner, that ominous warning rings especially true ahead of Sunday’s season opener.

The Lions already were decided underdogs hosting the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field in the first game of the Dan Campbell era.

But now the one position group where it seemed like they might have an edge heading into the season suddenly feels a bit vulnerable on its flanks. And just when it felt like we were about to get some answers, all we’ve got are more questions.

A day after starting left tackle Taylor Decker was listed as limited at practice due to a finger injury, the veteran was altogether absent on the field Thursday. And judging by the comments of tight end T.J. Hockenson following practice, we may not see Decker in uniform on Sunday, either.

More: In 49ers, a stiff challenge awaits new-look Lions in season opener

In fact, we might even see rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell, who struggled to make the transition from left tackle in college to right tackle here in Detroit this summer, making his NFL debut protecting Jared Goff’s blind side. With third-year pro Matt Nelson, who has one career start under his belt as a pro, starting on the opposite side.

All of which is to say … duck?

“Rookie left tackle, but he’s a baller,” Hockenson said, shrugging off any concerns about the Lions’ bookend predicament. “And Matt Nelson, he blocked Khalil Mack last year, so I think we’ll be all right up front. I mean, I’m not really worried about it.”

But feel free to if you want. Because it’s a legitimate concern, and just one of many for this team less than 72 hours before the curtain goes up on the Lions’ season.

Decker, the longest-tenured Lions player, has been a mainstay at left tackle for the Lions, starting all but one game there the last three seasons. And while Nelson did, indeed, hold his own against the Bears’ pass-rushing ace last December in Chicago, it’s hardly an even trade if Decker ends up sidelined by injury now. Remember, Nelson was a defensive lineman coming out of college and didn’t make the switch to tackle until he signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously Taylor’s one of those guys who has been a captain the last couple years and just a guy that you feed off of,” Hockenson added. “But football is one of those games where it’s next man up and you can’t really think about stuff like that. You just kind of have to move on. Taylor’s a great player and we definitely would love to have him. And when he comes back — whenever that is — we’re gonna keep rolling. But that’s something that you really can’t think about.”

Goff might not want to, either, if he’s trying to get a good night’s sleep ahead of his Detroit debut. Because this sounds like a nightmarish scenario for openers, with Sewell and Nelson potentially starting at tackle Sunday against a 49ers’ defense led by what Lions Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow calls “one of the best fronts we’ll face all year.”

The 49ers’ front four was practically unblockable two years ago when Robert Saleh’s defense helped carry the team to the Super Bowl. The same was expected last season even after the 49ers traded away DeForest Buckner, but then key injuries to ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford in the first two weeks of 2020 quickly derailed those plans. Both players are back now, as is Arik Armstead, the starter opposite Bosa who signed a huge contract extension following his breakout 10-sack season in 2019.

“We know that’s going to be a challenge for any tackle in this League, not just Sewell,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said Thursday prior to practice and before the extent of Decker’s injury was known. “Like I said, we’ll have a protection plan and we understand what the issues are.”

But the real issue here is what could — or should — happen if Decker is expected to be out for an extended period of time. Would the Lions’ staff really flip Sewell back to the left side after spending the entire offseason trying to get him comfortable on the right?

We all saw some of the growing pains in his limited preseason action, starting with a sack Sewell allowed on his first series against Indianapolis. But general manager Brad Holmes gave Sewell a vote of confidence last week, saying, “I think he’s ready now.”

“That’s a tough position to play out there on that island, and he sat out for a year,” Holmes said. “So, what he’s done — now, I know it’s magnified about what may be perceived and seen as a hiccup here or there — but there’s so much other good stuff that may be kind of hidden when you deep-dive the film, little subtle nuances that he’s doing that is going to make a big difference.”

How big, and how quickly, though, we’re about to find out. Because regardless of Decker’s status, the Lions’ early slate is packed with pressure.

After facing the 49ers, Detroit heads to Green Bay for the Packers’ home opener on a Monday night at Lambeau Field. The Packers, with two of the league’s better edge rushers in Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith, sacked Matthew Stafford eight times in their two meetings a year ago, in case you’d forgotten.

The Lions return home in Week 3 to face a Baltimore team that blitzed more than any other team in the league a year ago. (Only the Steelers knocked down opposing quarterbacks more than the Ravens in 2020.)

Then they hit the road again for back-to-back road games at Chicago and Minnesota, where they’ll face the likes of Mack and Danielle Hunter.

By then, we should know plenty about what this offense can do and what it can’t. In the meantime, though, the focus remains on the here and now, even if that’s a bit of a what-if game for every team as the NFL season kicks off. And especially for the one that calls Detroit home and isn’t exacty sure how well it’s going to protect it.

“They’re a good team, they’re a good defense, and it’s gonna be a challenge,” Hockenson said. “But it’s a really good opportunity for us. I’m excited just to see where we’re at as a team, you know? You feel good about stuff when you’re out here, but you never really know until the first game.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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