Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are two of the best players in the NFL, yet there would be times when neither would be on the field for the Lions last season — even when Johnson was healthy.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi explained the thought process behind giving his top weapons breathers in games.
“I want (Johnson) out there most snaps, and I’d like him to be out there every snap,” Lombardi said. “But … you want to make sure that when you’re in a game and all of a sudden you call the play, and you see the player that you called that play for coming off to get a blow, you don’t want to be in that situation.
“So, there are times when you can schedule in breaks for a player where it’s definitely a run situation. There’s a handful of situations where it doesn’t hurt you to take one of your best players off the field, and he can kind of catch his breath and be fresh.”
Johnson and Tate didn’t play 100 percent of the snaps in any game last year. In the playoff loss to the Cowboys, Tate played 60 of 67 snaps and Johnson played 64. And though Johnson dealt with an injury much of the year, Tate sat an average of 10.8 snaps per game last season.
Even in the three games Johnson missed with an ankle injury, Tate sat an average of 9.7 snaps.
“Whatever they ask of me, I’m going to happily do it,” Tate said. “If it’s special teams or sitting out a play or sitting out a couple plays or bringing my reps down or up, whatever they ask me to do, I’m more than happy to do because I want to win.”
Since the Lions went 11-5, playing time wasn’t a common complaint. But Tate said he would like to impact the game as much as possible.
“As a competitor, you want to be on the field at all times,” he said. “You want to affect the game any way you can, but at the same time, this is a long season. The coaches have a plan for us, and I think it’s a pretty good plan.”
The planning for when to sit players actually happens during the week, Lombardi said. The coaches talk to the doctors about any limitations players have, and ask the players how they’re feeling.
While mapping out the plays, Lombardi said he’ll look for times for the top playmakers to rest because he doesn’t want to call a play for a guy only to see him winded on the sideline, which he said has happened.
The problem at times last year was, when Johnson and Tate would come off the field at the same time, the Lions typically ran the ball — and with neither guy on the field, it was a dead giveaway.
Against the Patriots in Week 12, Tate had two catches for 41 yards in the first four plays, but came off for the next two. After Joique Bell ran for a combined 4 yards on first and second down, Matthew Stafford threw an incomplete pass to Tate on third down.
“If you see Calvin or myself make a big play and we’re just bending over breathing hard like we can’t make it to the next play, that’s where I expect them to take us out,” Tate said. “But if Calvin goes and catches four straight balls and it’s just first down, first down, first down, I would expect it to continue if the time is right.”