Allen Park — Although Taylor Decker is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell is optimistic he’ll have his starting left tackle on the field for the first time this season.
Campbell was asked before Friday’s session to slap a percentage on Decker’s chances of playing Sunday, and with a smile the coach simply replied, “High.”
“He’s played some great ball, he’s been a top left tackle in this league and it’s going to be big for our team,” center Evan Brown said. “The leadership, the continuity and he’s played a lot of ball, so it’s great to get him back.”
Decker’s return means rookie Penei Sewell will shift to right tackle, where he practiced throughout the offseason and took some lumps during the preseason. The challenge of the switch could be magnified this week, given he’ll be tasked with blocking one of the league’s top edge rushers, two-time All-Pro and 2020 sack leader T.J. Watt.
“Yeah, but you know we have protection plans in there,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “We try to help our tackles the best we can, but I think Sewell has come a long way.”
While the Lions look like they’ll be closer to full strength up front, they’ll be without two key players, running back Jamaal Williams and kicker Austin Seibert. It will be the second consecutive game missed for Williams, who is battling with a thigh injury.
Seibert popped up on the injury report this week with a hip issue and was held out of Friday’s session after being limited both Wednesday and Thursday. He’s expected to be replaced by practice squader Ryan Santoso, who already filled in for Seibert twice this season after the starter contracted COVID-19.
Among the Lions many problems this season has been missed tackles. Although not an official stat due to the subjective nature of the metric, analytics site Pro Football Focus lists the Lions with 80 missed tackles in 2021, or 10 per game.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone has been the worst culprit, failing to wrap up a ball carrier 14 times, double nickel corner AJ Parker, who is second on the list. In total, six Lions defenders have missed at least five stops.
Correcting the fundamental issue has been yet another focus for the team coming out of the bye and will be critical to slowing down Pittsburgh’s 232-pound rookie running back Najee Harris on Sunday.
And while Harris hasn’t been particularly effective during his inaugural campaign, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, he is among the league leaders in broken tackles, shaking a defender 13 times. Only Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry have broken more tackles this season.
“He doesn’t go down (easily),” Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes said. “He’s going to break tackles. It’s like you have to group tackle him, have to team tackle.”
Stepping in and stepping up
Given the lack of quality backup offensive linemen across the NFL, the loss of Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow could have easily been one of the most difficult for the Lions to overcome this season, but it’s turned out Brown has been one of the few things the team hasn’t had to worry about.
Despite not starting a game his first three seasons after going undrafted out of SMU in 2018, Brown has been a steady and reliable player filling in for Ragnow the past four games.
Brown has been particularly impressive in pass protection, where he’s allowed just four quarterback pressures in 218 pass-blocking snaps. To put that into context, Ragnow also allowed four this season, in 69 fewer snaps.
“Evan’s been solid,” Campbell said. “I mean, he’s stepped in and he’s a sharp guy. He’s smart and he’s really been — I hate it when you ask me stuff like this — but it’s kind of one of those guys, I don’t want to say you take for granted, but you kind of don’t think a lot about it and that’s a good thing. He’s in there and we know he’s going to set the table up and he’ll mix it up. He’s got good leverage and power. I’m glad we’ve got him.”
Campbell also said Brown’s performance is a credit to offensive line coach Hank Fraley for having the backups, including offensive tackle Matt Nelson, prepared to step in and perform at a high level.
“He does a good job of developing those guys working with him,” Campbell said. “He works all aspects from the mental side to the schematic side to certainly the fundamentals of it. So yeah, that’s a credit to him.”
Josh Reynolds was only able to practice with the Lions twice after being claimed off waivers this week, but Campbell remains hopeful the veteran receiver will be able to see the field against the Steelers.
“Look, we’re just trying to get him up to speed as fast as possible,” Campbell said. “Anything is on the table right now and I think he’s a pretty sharp guy. It will just be how much we feel and he feels comfortable as to whether we do it or not.”
Reynolds caught just 10 passes for 90 yards through five games with the Titans after signing with the club as a free agent this offseason. Last season with the Rams, where he played with current Lions quarterback Jared Goff, Reynolds set career-highs with 52 receptions for 618 yards.
Defensive back coach Aubrey Pleasant, who served in the same role with the Rams the first four years of Reynolds’ career, offered a brief scouting report of the Detroit’s latest acquisition.
“We used to call him ‘Big Smooth,'” Pleasant said. “He’s smooth, he’s long, he has very, very good ball skills. Sudden speed, long speed as he progressively goes down field. I think the one thing we’ve like about him is that he’s a very willing blocker in the run game and I know that’s something we try to preach here.”
Harsh prediction for Goff
In a column of second-half NFL predictions posted on Friday, ESPN writer Kevin Seifert mused this could be the final season Goff will serve as a starter for an NFL team.
“Goff has objectively been one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks this season,” Seifer wrote. “His Total QBR of 28.9 is lower than that of every starter except rookies Zach Wilson (28.0) and Justin Fields (27.4), and Goff is in such a snooze that he has thrown the ball away on multiple fourth-down conversion attempts. Even with a hefty salary-cap hit looming, what argument could the Lions make for bringing him back?”
Seemingly, those financial ramifications point to the prediction falling flat.
Goff’s contract includes more than $30 million in dead money in 2022 following an offseason restructure, all but assuring he’ll be back with the Lions next season. And even with Detroit currently tracking toward earning the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, there isn’t a sure-fire quarterbacking option among this batch of prospects who would logically replace Goff as the Week 1 starter.