Lions' Jahlani Tavai shows his versatility in helping contain Cardinals QB Kyler Murray
The envisioned multiplicity of the Detroit Lions' defense hinges on the versatility of its linebackers. And while Jamie Collins' varied skill set was on full display in the team's 26-23 victory over Arizona, Jahlani Tavai was also playing a different role in the win.
Drafted in the second round out of Hawaii a year ago, Tavai's 250-pound frame was viewed as an ideal scheme fit for coach Matt Patricia. And his ability to play inside, outside and on the line of scrimmage provides that desired versatility.
But while we've seen him line up in those different spots, Tavai was used almost exclusively on the edge against the Cardinals.
"We kind of wanted to switch up some things for the guys to make sure we were caging Kyler Murray," linebacker coach Ty McKenzie explained. "Kind of worked out for us. We won the game. Every thing we do every week, obviously, is just what's in the best interest of the team."
Tavai's statistical output in the game was modest — two tackles in 58 snaps — but the defensive game plan to slow Murray was achieved. Not only did the Cardinals' quarterback throw three interceptions, he was also held to a season-low 29 yards rushing.
Asked about the different role, Tavai first went to the well of cliches, noting he's happy to do whatever the coaches ask of him. But when pressed about what he liked, he acknowledged he enjoys the physicality of playing closer to the ball at the snap.
"I think it's just constant collision," Tavai said. "I guess that's what I like about it. Other than that, I just love playing ball. That's all that is."
Whether Tavai continues in this role will likely depend on the matchup. With lightning-quick, dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara on deck, the Lions might want more length on the edge to interfere with quarterback Drew Brees' passing lanes. As McKenzie joked, the team might stick safety Tracy Walker on the edge.
And, as the coaching staff has mentioned in the past, they're still trying to find the right fits for some of their defensive pieces after losing out on so many offseason practice reps and the entirety of the preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin values the versatility he has in the second level of his unit, but also warns of an unseen dilemma that can arise from moving players around too frequently while they're trying to gel. Simply put, it can get confusing.
"When you do all that stuff, it looks good on paper," Undlin said. "You line up all your players and you're like, hey, he can do this, he can do that, he can also go do this and that in this situation. It puts a lot of pressure on the players to be able to understand how they fit in there. And when they come running up the sideline and all of sudden the guy looks next to him and sees the same guy, but the guy is playing a different position, it can get a little hairy. You've got to have guys that can be able to do that too. You can't just throw them out there and hope it works. I think that's a testament to the players."