Golden Tate proving to be just what the Lions ordered

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Bagshot, England — During Calvin Johnson's first seven seasons, the Lions were 2-4 without him.

This year, the Lions are 2-0 without the All-Pro, thanks, in part, to Golden Tate filling in as Matthew Stafford's top weapon.

Tate has been just about everything the Lions could've hoped for when they signed him to a five-year, $31 million contract in March. Through seven games, he's fourth in the NFL in receptions (48), sixth in receiving yards (649) and leads all receivers with 343 yards after the catch.

"He's an outstanding player," general manager Martin Mayhew said Thursday. "He's a heck of a football player, very dedicated to his craft.

"The guy's a playmaker. And when it comes time for clutch plays, that's what he's been doing pretty much his whole NFL career, I think, and he's continuing to do that with us."

Tate displayed a knack for making crunch-time plays for the Seahawks, but his touchdown catch in last weekend's victory over the Saints rivals any from his first four seasons. After an 8-yard catch on third-and-14, Tate outran defenders for a 73-yard touchdown that cut a 13-point deficit to six points with 3 minutes, 38 seconds remaining.

"He's catching everything that the quarterback throws his way and when he catches the ball, he's making plays after it," safety Glover Quin said. "He's breaking tackles, making guys miss, and he showed on Sunday that he can go the distance. … He's came in and stepped up big time for us."

Tate finished with 10 catches for 154 yards, both career highs, and with three 100-yard games, he's matched his total from his first four years.

While Quin's first point is mostly correct, Tate does have three drops this year, according to Pro Football Focus, after having seven total his first four years. His 5.88 percent drop rate is slightly higher than the past two years.

The only potential knock on Tate is a lack of effort blocking.

Still, if Tate continues his pace, he'll finish with 110 catches and 1,483 yards.

Tate set a career high in receiving yards last year with 898, but he's on pace to surpass that in Week 11 — the Lions are idle Week 9. His career high in receptions also happened in 2013 with 64, but his current rate would break that in three more games, too.

When Johnson returns from his high-ankle sprain, however, Tate's targets likely will decrease. But with six catches for 93 yards in Week 1, he proved he and Johnson can produce together.

"Golden Tate has done a lot of big things for us," Johnson said. "The biggest impact he's had is after he catches the ball gaining yards after that, so if we can keep that up, we're going to be in good shape."

Stafford said he didn't have any expectations for Tate, but calls the receiver "fantastic."

"He's a competitive guy, loves to play football, loves to get out there and work, and we need more guys like that," Stafford said. "He's doing a great job for us."

When he signed, Tate said he could flourish in a pass-heavy offense after being stashed away, to an extent, on the run-first Seahawks, and he's been right. He also said he's capable of being a 1B to Johnson's 1A.

And when describing why he's been so successful, Tate called it a collective effort, crediting his hard work, Stafford, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and receivers coach Robert Prince.

"I'm really happy with where I am, but in my mind, I think the best is still yet to come," Tate said.

Lions vs. Falcons

Kickoff: 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Wembley Stadium, London

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Lions 5-2, Falcons 2-5

Line: Lions by 3½

Series: Lions lead 23-12 (Atlanta 31-18, Dec. 22, 2012)