It felt like deja vu all over again for Detroit Lions fans when Carolina Panthers Ed Dickson stunted all over Detroit on Sunday. The Lions were notoriously bad at covering tight ends last year, and many had hoped those issues had been cleared up with the addition of Jarrad Davis and improved secondary play through four weeks.
But Dickson hauled in five catches for a career-high 175 yards. Dickson’s day was bolstered by two huge plays: a 64-yard strike that led to a field goal and a huge 57-yard third-down conversion that ended up leading to Carolina’s first touchdown of the day.
What went wrong for Detroit? Do the Lions still have a linebacker issue? Let’s go to the tape.
Play 1: Cam Newton connects with Ed Dicks for a 64-yard gain
The Lions are in the most basic of coverages: A cover-2 zone. The only wrinkle here is that Glover Quin is lined up like a nickel cornerback, while Tavon Wilson and Miles Killebrew are the two deep safeties. This is likely an attempt for the Lions to show they’re playing man-coverage, as Quin is lined up over Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who can be a pest in the passing game. Quin is a solid coverage player, so the Lions are attempting to give the Panthers a man-on-man look.
The bluff backfires, though, because this play was designed to beat a cover-2 look. With two receivers to Newton’s right occupying the attention of the top safety and a corner route at the bottom drawing Killebrew’s eye, Dickson’s seam route should have no problem finding open space once he clears Jarrad Davis’ zone in the short-middle.
In terms of coverage, this is actually a pretty good job all around. The shallow crossing routes make it so Jarrad Davis can’t drop any deeper. Tavon Wilson makes a pretty impressive break on Dickson’s route and even makes contact with the tight end just as he’s catching the ball.
But that’s where everything went wrong.
Wilson’s tackle attempt was poor at best, pathetic at worst.
Wilson throws a shoulder into Dickson, a man who has 40 pounds on him, and Dickson is barely affected by the tackle attempt. 43 yards later, Dickson has the Panthers first-and-goal.
Play 2: Newton completes 57-yards pass to Dickson
I’m just going to start with the replay of this one, because it’s not exactly clear what the Lions were trying to do here:
Immediately notice how Tavon Wilson and Glover Quin switch places pre-snap. This is key, because Wilson ends up having edge duties on the side where Dickson plays. It’s tough to know what exactly goes wrong here, but the Lions’ secondary told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that there was an alignment issue on the play.
“It’s all about alignments,” Slay told the Detroit Free Press. “We didn’t do nothing (out of the) ordinary. We just didn’t line up correctly. If we lined up correctly, we get the job done. So it’s alignments.”
It’s pretty clear that both Wilson and Slay bite on the play, but it appears the majority of blame here is on Wilson, who loses outside containment to Newton—though it’s worth noting that Tahir Whitehead was lined up opposite Dickson and never even considered blanketing him in coverage.
Ultimately, I think this one is on Wilson, and the players’ body language after the play certainly seems to suggest that, too.
So the good news is that these aren’t the same issues the Lions dealt with in 2016. This isn’t a case where Detroit’s linebackers weren’t quick or athletic enough to stay with NFL tight ends. In fact, the linebackers handled both of these plays fairly well.
The bad news is, however, these two big plays were not Tavon Wilson’s finest. Wilson has been invaluable as a run stopper, but Detroit would be wise to not put him in many coverage situations going forward.