More often than not, trading away football players is a business decision. On Tuesday at 4pm EST, the trade deadline was reached in the NFL. Some surprising moves were made and, for what felt like the first time, the NFL trade deadline had meaning. It felt similar to what happens in the NBA or MLB. The best part is that these deals didn’t happen all at once. They’ve been happening over the last few days.
For example, the Detroit Lions traded away a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to the New York Giants for Damon “Snacks” Harrison. After this trade, it felt like the Lions were making a move to better their defense for the second half of the season. Oddly enough, the Lions made another trade, and this time it was a business decision. They traded wide receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
In just six days, the feeling in the room on the Lions transitioned from “win-now” to “sell for the future.” This decision could have been made after the loss in a very winnable game against the Seattle Seahawks during Week 8. In my opinion, the Lions made the move because they weren’t going to re-sign Golden Tate this off-season. Needless to say, by selling Golden Tate for a draft pick, it’s clear that the Lions have ripped the white towel and thrown half of it into the ring while putting the other half on the shoulder and waiting for something catastrophic to happen. Trying to win without one of your best playmakers by choice doesn’t sound like a variable in the “win now” formula.
Certainly they’ll play to win, but the next five games on the schedule will be very telling. Road games against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears are on tap. Fortunately, they play the Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears at home during this five-game span. Regardless of the schedule, the Lions have to replace the target percentage of 27% that Golden Tate accounted for. During eight games this season, Tate compiled 44 receptions for 517 yards and three touchdowns. How will the Lions replace him? Look no further, I’ve got you covered:
The Run Game Becomes the Focus
Do they really have a choice? When you trade away your best offensive weapon, it’s necessarily time to unleash your next best weapon. By trading up in the 2018 NFL Draft and selecting Kerryon Johnson, it’s obvious that the Lions have high expectations for the rookie. Will he meet them? As a fan, we can only hope. Realistically, no, not yet. Now that Tate is gone, the Lions have no choice but to utilize Johnson more and more.
Interestingly enough, the Lions have run the ball the fifth-least in the NFL this season. They’ve only run the ball 162 times this year but still have more rushing yards than New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. With only 768 rushing yards, they only have four rushing touchdowns and will lean on LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson for the second half of the season.
On the run above, it’s a prime example of the way the Lions’ run game works. They love to use a wide receiver on a fake jet sweep to pull the defense to the motion and then run to the opposite direction. It’s very common for offenses to do it, and the Lions execute perfectly.
As you can see, the linebackers shift to the right, which opens the door for the offensive line to seal the linebackers at the second level. Marvin Jones (#11) does a great job setting the edge and blocking the cornerback downfield. All of this opens a running lane for Kerryon Johnson, who takes advantage and trucks a defender before barreling his way into the endzone.
Believe it or not, Kerryon Johnson does have more carries than LeGarrette Blount this year. Johnson has 77 carries to Blount’s 60. No matter what, if the run game becomes the focus, there has to be a chunk of the pie carved out for Blount.
On the play above, he does a great job bouncing an inside zone run to the outside and gains additional yardage. Watching tight end Levine Tolilo (#87) wash Robert Quinn (#94) out of the play is a thing of beauty. But watching the 31-year-old running back move like this is a good sign. It might not be realistic to ask for more of this from Blount, but he has to become more efficient as a runner. The abysmal 2.8 yards per carry that he has right now has to improve for the Lions to maintain any type of a rushing attack.
The run game will reflect on how the game unfolds. That’s obvious. If the Lions turn the ball over three times and the defense continues to let opposing offenses shred them, then this run game disappears. Don’t believe me? See the game from Sunday against the Seahawks.
Kerryon Johnson Is the Primary Factor
Should I have talked about Kerryon and only Kerryon? Probably, but it won’t be all be put on his shoulders. Like I mentioned above, the Lions still have LeGarrette Blount, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. I’d focus on their tight ends, but I feel like that’s somewhat of a lost cause. It looks pretty clear that Stafford doesn’t feel comfortable throwing them the football, regardless of the three-reception performance from Luke Willson against the Seattle Seahawks or the two touchdown performance from Michael Roberts against the Miami Dolphins.
One of the few positives from the game against the Seattle Seahawks was what Kerryon Johnson did as a pass catcher. While, I know it’s early, he had a career day receiving the football. With six catches for 69 yards, he looked the part coming out of the backfield. On the play above, you can see him running to the flats, and Matthew Stafford easily checks it down to him. After the catch, Johnson does plenty. He stiff-arms a defender and breaks through a tackle before being pushed out of bounds for the first down.
Here’s an example of the Lions running out of an empty formation and having Kerryon Johnson align as a wide receiver. On the bottom of the screen, he runs a hitch route and Stafford finds him after the Dolphins play soft coverage. Utilizing Johnson as a receiver might be just as efficient as having him run the ball out of the backfield.
The Lions love running their offense out of ’11’ personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). It’s no guarantee, but with how well Johnson looked running that hitch route and his ability to move in the open field, it wouldn’t surprise me if he ran routes out of the slot while Blount aligns behind Stafford in the backfield, especially if Theo Riddick is going to be out for an extended period of time due to a knee injury. What other options do the Lions have at wide receiver? We know enough about Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, but what falls behind them now that Tate is gone?
T.J. Jones Ready to Role?
From one Notre Dame receiver to another. There are only two players remaining on the Detroit Lions’ roster from the 2014 NFL Draft: Nevin Lawson and T.J. Jones. I’ll be the first to say Lawson wouldn’t be rostered on many NFL teams, but the Lions have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to drafting cornerbacks other than Darius Slay. As for T.J. Jones, maybe this is the moment they’ve been waiting for.
He’s coming off a career year in 2017 with 30 catches for 399 yards and one touchdown. As of right now, the 26-year-old receiver only has three receptions for 36 yards, but that’s sure to change. Against the Seahawks he was a healthy scratch, but his workload is going to increase moving forward, and it won’t be surprising if and when he lines up against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
On the bottom of the screen, you’ll see T.J. Jones catch a designed screen pass from Stafford. The cornerback is playing off on his coverage, and there’s clearly an opening for a quick pass for some positive yardage. Stafford notices this and takes advantage. Jones does a nice job securing the catch and getting up the sideline for positive yardage.
Seeing a designed screen like that has some resemblance to what the Lions did often with Golden Tate. Odds are, T.J. Jones will run plenty of screens and routes underneath linebackers to try and create some yards after the catch. The best way to sum up play like this would be that Jones will be a poor man’s Golden Tate.
That’s not all that Jones can do, though. Below is a play where he goes vertical in Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins. This is a great job by Matthew Stafford fitting this pass in between the coverage down the sideline and into the hands of T.J. Jones. They needed 25 yards on this play and got just that. There have been times in his career that Jones has found ways deep down the field and, with an expanded role, we’ll see him work all over the field, from the short areas of the field to making catches 20+ yards downfield.
Through seven games with the Lions, Golden Tate had 69 targets. With nine games left to play, he was on pace for 88 more targets and 56.57 more receptions. That would have put him around 100 receptions for the season with over 1,100 receiving yards. During his four-and-a-half seasons with the Detroit Lions, that’s right on par with what he’s always done. There have been times this year when he’s struggled with drops, and fans have questioned his effort, but regardless, he was producing like he’s always been.
There will be more on the plates of players such as Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, T.J. Jones and Kerryon Johnson. They’ll be the weapons for this offense, and they’ll have to produce. However, Matthew Stafford will have to lead this team if they want any chance of making the playoffs this year. At this rate, they can kiss the wildcard goodbye. Any chance rests strictly on winning the division.
By moving on from a 100 reception player, Stafford will have to go all “Tom Brady” on us and do more with less. He’ll have to turn T.J. Jones into his Julian Edelman and Kerryon Johnson into his James White. Can that happen? I think it can, and I’m sure I sound delusional.
This offense can’t become one-dimensional. The run game has to be consistent and can’t be abandoned, even when down two touchdowns in the first half. Checking the ball down to players like Kerryon and T.J. Jones will only help open the deep aerial attack to Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Not having Golden Tate hurts, but the Lions have options, and they also have an extra pick on the second day of the 2019 NFL Draft to help fix their defense.