Rookie Decker's 1st big task: Containing Mathis
Allen Park — When Robert Mathis was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2003, Taylor Decker was just 9 years old. On Sunday, the two will share the field as the Detroit Lions' rookie offensive tackle makes his regular season debut and Mathis suits up for his 14th season with the Colts.
Mathis has put together a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. He’s a Super Bowl champion, a six-time Pro Bowler and the 2013 AFC Defensive Player of the Year. He’s 20th on the all-time sack list, and even at the age of 35, he’s still the best pass-rusher the Colts have.
When Decker lines up with Mathis directly across the way, the rookie’s primary focus will simply be remaining calm.
“The big thing is making sure you don’t go out there and freak out, try doing something I haven’t done before to try and block this guy,” Decker said. “It’s going to be really challenging. He has some really good moves that are really effective for him. I just need to go out there, stay calm, execute the technique I’ve been coached on every day. If I do that properly, hopefully, it works out.”
Mathis’ signature move is his dip and rip. The compact edge rusher explodes off the ball, trying to get the corner. Then he bends, almost parallel to the ground, shrinking the target a blocker has to misdirect his momentum.
If you don’t get a good shot, Mathis is by you in the blink of an eye, putting opposing quarterbacks under duress almost as soon as they complete their initial drop back.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell is plenty familiar with Mathis, spending nine seasons with the defender as a coach on the Colts staff.
“The can get about that high off the ground coming around the corner,” Caldwell said holding his hands inches off the podium. “You just watch, he can bend and turn the corner, which is tough for particularly offensive lineman that are tall, that have a tough time bending their knees, to get down and really slow down the pace of his rush. He can bend and turn the corner on you, and he plays with just such ridiculous effort. It’s just constant, from whistle to whistle.”
Decker is 6-foot-7, but the Lions clearly believe in his ability to bend. They wouldn’t have made him the organization’s first-round draft pick, or immediately thrust him into a starting job at left tackle, if they didn’t.
And even though the sample size was small, Decker has benefited from his early NFL experiences. As the starting left tackle from day one, he’s had the opportunity to work against some established veteran pass-rushers in the preseason, from Pittsburgh’s James Harrison to Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson to Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. And the rookie has unquestionably shown steady improvement.
After getting beaten badly by Harrison in the preseason opener for a sack, and giving up an ugly tackle for loss on a running play to Johnson, Decker looked vastly improved in the third preseason game against the Ravens, giving up minimal pass-rush pressure while playing the first half of the game.
“Those sorts of reps are invaluable,” Decker said. “You can’t express how important they are, especially this early on. That’s my first exposure to pass rushers in this league and I think it’s been really good for my development because it’s been so challenging. Only good came from it even if it was difficult as times.”
In the regular season, the pace and intensity will only ratchet up. It will be another test for Decker and Caldwell is confident his blindside blocker is up for the challenge.
“It’s not like he needs some sort of great words of advice in order to handle one of the premiere pass rushers this league has ever seen,” Caldwell said. “All you do is just take a look at the film, but (the) young fellow will hold his own. He’ll be all right.”