It is already pretty well documented that Detroit Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis had a rough rookie season. The 2017 first-round pick had struggles in coverage in 2017 and even became unplayable on passing downs in the latter stages of the season. His sophomore year with a new coaching staff gives him a chance to put his past struggles behind him and this preseason was his first chance to show that he can turn it around.
His preseason has not gone as planned, though. The issues he had in coverage last season still seem to haunt him, and he has made a few key mistakes that have cost the team. Davis has made a few great plays in preseason, though, and they mainly came in the run game.
Davis is great at finding gaps in the offense’s run blocking and exploiting them to make plays. He is a great at shooting through gaps and causing mayhem in the backfield. The linebacker can rack up tackles for loss and stuff runs at the line of scrimmage if given the opportunity. This was also his greatest strength in college at the University of Florida and definitely the skill that earned him his first-round status.
While he did miss a few crucial tackles in the Lions third preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was on a wet sloppy night where he may have had trouble gaining proper footing. His tackling form has always been hit or miss, but the only game this month where he made such glaring errors was against the Bucs in unusual conditions. While it is something to note, it’s not something to really knock him for, especially when he was only in position to make some of the tackles he missed because of his ability to shoot through gaps so well.
While Davis is great at shooting through gaps and taking advantage of any chinks the armor of the opposition, he isn’t very good at eating space in run defense. If a gap doesn’t open up for him, then he isn’t good at creating one. He gets blocked out of plays way too easily and does not have any real moves in his arsenal that he can use to shed blocks.
He can make plays if the offense gives him a chance to, but he is a poor playmaker on his own. A run-stuffing linebacker needs to be able to eat up space in the middle of the opposition’s offensive line and create traffic on the interior to force runs back outside. Davis still has not shown that he can do this at the NFL level, and that’s a real concern entering Year 2.
These faults in his game also make him a poor pass rusher. He can’t shed off blockers when rushing the passer, is too stiff and doesn’t have the bend or athleticism necessary to really create interior pressure.
Just like he does against the run, though, Davis can fire through the gaps that open in pass protection to make plays in the backfield. He is great at blitzing from the second level of the defense if the guys in front of him can stretch out the protection. The linebacker also can cannon through the offensive line on delayed blitzes as well.
Davis will never be a great pass rusher from the interior, but he has shown that he can bring a second wave of pass pressure if the coverage behind him allows the time.
The aspect of Davis’ game that earns him the most criticism are his failures in pass coverage. Through three weeks of preseason there is no indication that he has grown at all as a coverage linebacker. His instincts often fail him, and he often just wanders himself out of position, like on this play against the New York Giants.
Giants running back Wayne Gallman runs a route out of the backfield and is to be picked up by Davis in man coverage. This looks to be an option route, where Gallman will either break inside on an angle route or outside into a quick out. Davis follows him towards the end of the offensive line, but drifts too far to the outside. The running back sees this and breaks his route back inside creating an easy touchdown throw for his quarterback.
The most frustrating thing about this play is that Davis wasn’t even beat by the running back, he beat himself. There is reason for him to drift that far outside. He vacated the middle of the field where he had no help between himself and the endzone. If Davis had stayed inside and given up outside leverage instead he would have forced the quarterback into a harder throw and forced the running back into an area where there were more defenders around to break up the pass.
Davis getting beat in coverage without much effort by the offense has been a continuing concern for him, even in zone coverage.
On this play against the Buccaneers, Davis was responsible for covering the middle hook route. When the Bucs tight end runs a route behind Davis and breaks it off to his inside, the linebacker should have been there to bracket him and take away the throw. Instead, Davis had wandered too far to his left, staring at the running back who ran a flat route. The running back had already been picked up by a different linebacker and there was no reason for him to be occupied. He gives up his position inside and the Bucs get an easy first down throw.
The linebacker has a knack of getting preoccupied by teams’ opposing running backs and wandering himself out of position. Even when his assignment is clearly not the running back it still becomes his focus anyways. This tunnel vision also makes him a liability on play-action passes.
Wandering himself out of position also allowed Tampa Bay to convert a fourth-down play last Friday.
It looks like Davis’ assignment here is to play man coverage against the running back. The running back stays back in pass protection. Davis should have stayed back at the second level and waited for the back to make a move, but he instead rounds the pocket to chase him.
By making a move all the way around the pocket, not only does Davis lose any sort of middle contain the Lions defense has but if the running back was planning on slipping out of his blocking stance into a route then Davis would have been well out of position to pick him up. There was no reason for Davis to make the move and just like the other plays he walked himself out of position instead of being forced to do so.
While Davis obviously has some potential to succeed in the NFL, he is going to seriously have to grow as a player in order to thrive in this league. As I mentioned in my Eli Harold film piece last week, a linebacker that can not pass rush well or drop into coverage will not last long in today’s NFL. Davis will obviously be given more time than the average player to figure it out due to his status as a first-round pick. For his own sake, and the sake of Detroit’s defense, it needs to be sooner rather than later.