Jones' emergence leaves Tate scrambling for catches

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions wide receiver Golden Tate

Allen Park — Marvin Jones’ emergence as a No. 1 receiver has been one of the most pleasant early season surprises for the Detroit Lions. But it’s also raised questions about the team’s other top option in the passing game, Golden Tate, who was expected to share the load replacing Calvin Johnson’s production.

To say Jones is off to an impressive start would be an understatement. Through three weeks, his 408 receiving yards led the league by a wide margin. So does his nine explosive plays, gains of 20 or more yards.

Tate, meanwhile, has seen his production dwindle, catching 13 balls for 94 yards. And even though the sample size is small, it continues a troubling decline in per catch production. After averaging a career-low 9.0 yards per reception in 2015, it’s dipped to 7.2 yards this year.

That’s because much of Tate’s game, at least in the Lions’ scheme, relies on him operating close to the line of scrimmage and picking up yards after the catch. That’s been his calling card for years, but that too has been in decline.

In his first season with the Lions, 2014, Tate gained 6.97 YAC per reception. Only three receivers averaged more that year.

That’s down more than 33 percent to 4.62 yards.

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Have opposing defenses locked on to his tendencies? The Lions aren’t convinced.

“I don’t think so,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think they study and know who you are. He’s been in the league a long time. He’s the same guy that caught 99 balls for us and he’s still capable.”

But is Tate capable of being more of a downfield threat, or is he limited to working in the short areas of the field?

When you include plays that have been wiped out by penalties, Tate has been targeted 27 times this season, and the Lions have taken their deep shots to him. He’s had five passes thrown his direction where the ball has traveled more than 20 yards in the air, but none of those plays have resulted in a completion. His longest catch came on a ball that traveled nine yards.

This isn’t a new issue. Tate has never been particularly potent downfield, and given his declined yards after the catch, the big plays are vanishing. He had just seven gains of 20 or more yards last season and his long this year is 15.

Still, that won’t stop the Lions from trying to work the ball to him vertically.

“He’s got certain strengths, but we’re not afraid to throw it to him anywhere on the field,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said.

As for the disparity between Jones and Tate’s early season production, the Lions still believe the scales are destined to even out. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has done an excellent job spreading the ball around, with five players having at least 16 targets.

Tate wasn’t available in the locker room this week, but he did participate in a conference call with Chicago reporters leading up to this weekend’s NFC North matchup. There wasn’t a sense of disappointment about his role in the offense.

“I think Stafford has done a great job at spreading the ball around,” Tate said. “Everybody is getting catches. Everybody is getting opportunities. If you look at the stats, you’ll see five, six seven different guys catching passes every game. That keeps the defense on their toes. You’ve got to prepare for everybody.”

Detroit’s coaches believe it’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings back in Tate’s favor.

“Sometimes the ball finds one guy more than another,” Cooter said. “I would say it will be a back-and-forth all year. …I would expect him to get plenty of touches throughout the rest of the year. It will come and go in waves for those guys.”

Twitter: @justin_rogers