There were many praiseworthy defensive performances in the Detroit Lions’ Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. While the team did lose, the defense played well, and they managed to give a lot of trouble to one of the best offenses this league has ever seen.
Cornerback Justin Coleman made a few big plays in the secondary to hold Sammy Watkins in check. Edge defender and start free agent signing Trey Flowers finally made an impact as well. Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson made a mess of the Chiefs interior offense.
One performance that went under the radar was that of safety Tavon Wilson. The Lions defensive back was on the roster bubble for parts of training camp, but he played a huge role for the team in Week 4, and one could argue he served as the team's best box defender.
In order to counter Kansas City’s incredible passing offense, the Lions stacked the field with their dime defense fairly often. Occasionally, they even put a seventh defensive back on the field. Wilson, the fourth safety on the depth chart in Detroit, became the beneficiary of this.
Wilson played a total of 35 defensive snaps over the teams first three games this season. He played 66 defensive snaps in Week 4. He made the most of these snaps as well.
While he is listed as a safety, Wilson spends much of his time lined up in the box. He would often come onto the field as essentially a second linebacker, filling the role that Christian Jones—who spent many snaps on the defensive line—often fills in Detroit.
As I wrote in my film breakdown on Wilson in August, he has always been a much better run defender than pass defender. That still proves true today, and he showed it on Sunday.
On this play he makes a great read and shoots through a gap to earn a tackle for loss.
Wilson is lined up in a five-man box as a linebacker, alongside middle linebacker Jarrad Davis. After quarterback Patrick Mahomes hands off the ball he treads to his right. He does not try to stuff the gap he is responsible for, waiting patiently for the guard to engage someone else before shooting the gap and making the play.
His greatest attribute as a run defender is his play diagnosis. He is smart from the second level and can read the game when he keeps in front of him. Wilson also has patience, and picks his moments well. He is also a good, strong tackler.
On this play, he comes from the second level to undercut the running back and prevent what could have been a big gain.
The safety’s duty on this play is to get out on the edge and contain a run to the outside. After drifting outside at first, he quickly turns back inside when he realizes the running back has a clear hole. He dives for the runner’s legs, and undercuts him as he forces the running back to jump over him.
Wilson is also great in pursuit, as displayed on this play.
The safety is lined up in the box here as well. He knifes through the B-gap to make a tackle in the hole but fails to wrap and allows the running back to escape him. The runner attempts to bounce the run outside, and Wilson is able to chase him down from behind after quickly recovering from the first hit.
As great as he is against the run, his struggles against the pass that lost him his starting role reared their ugly head in Week 4. Wilson struggled in coverage whenever he was forced to drop back and looked nearly unplayable as an actual defensive back.
On this play, the safety is forced to cover a tight end in man coverage and just gets lost.
The tight end runs a simple shallow cross over the middle, and while there was some traffic Wilson had to navigate, he dropped way too deep into coverage. He also hitches for a moment and jumps backwards for some reason. Wilson loses so much ground to his opponent that a short completion ends up going for 24 yards.
He also struggled in zone coverage when he lined up as a deep safety, like this play at the end of the second half.
Wilson has the deep right zone in the Lions cover-2 defense on this play. His job is to bracket any receiver that gets a step deep on their corner and be around for support. The safety has a receiver run through his zone entirely wide open, but Wilson doesn’t see him. He is late reacting, staring at a smothered receiver running down the sideline, and the Lions end up giving up a deep catch. This play jump-started the Chiefs late first-half drive that earned them a last-second field goal.
Wilson is a great box safety who can expertly stuff the run but struggles heavily whenever he is forced to drop into coverage. While his run stuffing ability could be greatly used up front, he is a liability whenever the opposition drops back to pass and he is on the field.
There is a fix to this, though.
Last year the Lions made the interesting decision to move Miles Killebrew—formerly Wilson’s backup—to linebacker. The strong safety is a strong tackler, good run defender and has special teams value. While he has yet to play any snaps as a linebacker, Killebrew practices as one and would probably end up filling a linebacker role if he was ever forced on the field due to injury.
Detroit could do the same with Wilson, but actually use him. Christian Jones, a weak side linebacker, is good in pass coverage but is a liability against the run. Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni could move Jones off the field for Wilson regularly on rushing downs. A converted Wilson could also be used more down the stretch like the team did against the Chiefs and put him on the field as an extra run defending defensive back who still has more speed and athleticism than your average linebacker.
Lining him up as a deep safety or forcing into man coverage feels like a misstep, though. He has never been good filling either role, and a player with that much time in the league already should not be expected to get much better at them. It would be to the Lions’ benefit to keep Wilson in situations that take advantage of what we know he does well.