Week 9 was the first time since 2013 that the Detroit Lions played a game without wide receiver Golden Tate in the lineup. The “YAC-King” was dealt to the Eagles and it was up to the Lions remaining receivers to fill the void in production he left. While the offense as a whole was a mess, losing 24-9 to the Minnesota Vikings while giving up 10 sacks in the process, there were some positives.
Marvin Jones Jr. is the guy the Lions will rely on the most in the absence of Tate. The receiver was brought to Detroit in 2016 as a quasi-replacement for Calvin Johnson and has slowly grown as a player over the years.
The receiver led the team with 66 yards on six receptions Sunday. While he did not have any highlight plays and did not stuff the box score, he played a lot better than his stat line would indicate. That has been the usual for Jones this season, as his 2018 numbers seem down compared to 2017, but he may be playing better football than ever at the moment.
While Jones’ most valuable traits have always been his skills as a ball tracker and his ability to high point and snag jump passes, his ability as a zone buster has always been great as well. Jones has always been a smart player against zone coverage and always finds a way to manipulate zones to find an opening. He showed that ability late in the first quarter against Minnesota.
Jones and fellow wide receiver Kenny Golladay execute an “Ohio” route concept. Golladay runs a go route and takes out the Vikings defender assigned to the deep zone on that side. Jones gets behind the defender tasked with taking the shallower zone before breaking on a deep out route and making a quick catch at the sideline for a 14-yard gain.
While Jones was always great against zone coverage, he struggled against man coverage in years past. Route running was always his weak point as a receiver and it limited his use in the Lions offense. Much of the reason why he became so well known for catching contested passes was because he could never get open.
His route running has vastly improved this year. He is much better at decelerating when he needs to, making quick turns without losing much speed, and breaking hard and cleanly on his routes. Crisp, tight footwork makes it harder for defenders to properly mirror and stay in front of him, allowing him to get open all over the field. He showed off his new route running prowess in Week 9.
On this first quarter throw, he is matched up against Vikings star safety Harrison Smith.
Jones comes off of the snap and runs straight to the first down line. Once he has enough to convert the down, he quickly decelerates and breaks into a curl route. The safety cannot react in time and ends up flying backwards a few yards. Jones makes the easy catch in open space for a first down and a few extra yards.
As simple as it may seem, this quick catch shows some of the growth we have seen from Jones this season.
While the receiver would only finish the game with 66 yards, it could have been much higher had quarterback Matthew Stafford not had a horrible game. Jones did a great job getting open against both man and zone coverage, Stafford just had trouble spotting him and getting him the ball.
Jones is lined up against cornerback Xavier Rhodes on this play. Rhodes picks up the receiver in man coverage. Jones runs a comeback right towards the near sideline that would get him open just far enough downfield for a first down. Stafford is flushed out of the pocket by the Vikings pass rush and throws a badly-placed ball incomplete.
The veteran has emerged as a true possession receiver that can run a full route tree. While his 18 yards per catch in 2017 was very impressive, it also was an indictment of his play style as well. Jones could never be depended to catch anything that was not either a deep jump ball or a designed play to break zone coverage deep. Now things have changed. He is catching passes all over the field and can be relied on against a variety of coverages. Detroit even used him in the slot a few times in Week 9.
Jones will never be the skilled route runner and YAC-monster that Tate was, but the work he has done to expand his game will be huge for the Lions in making up for the loss of Tate.