At the time, the play was huge. The Detroit Lions found themselves down 10-7 to the New York Jets in the nationally-televised season opener. Matthew Stafford had driven the team into field goal range and was looking to take back the lead early in the second quarter.
But a first-and-10 play broke down. TJ Jones’ route was thoroughly disrupted on a timing play, and when Stafford threw it to a spot, only a Jets player was standing there. It was an easy play for New York, and one that took at least three points off the board.
The play wasn’t over, though. Lions receiver Kenny Golladay was in the general area of the interception, and immediately knew what he needed to do. With a full head of steam, Golladay winded up and threw a right-arm haymaker between Trumaine Johnson’s arm and the football. He followed up the punchout with a vicious shoulder, shoving Johnson aside and leaving the ball right there to scoop up and give Detroit the possession back.
That's one way to help out your quarterback.— PFF (@PFF) September 11, 2018
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/XWZ1urDeP6
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this play turned out to be inconsequential. The Lions would proceed to go backwards four yards in the next three plays, then miss the game-tying football. The rest of the game would be an embarrassing blowout, and Detroit’s season opener turned into 48-17 disaster.
But as Golladay explained on the NFL Network show “Good Morning Football” this week, that one play represented a change in philosophy under new head coach Matt Patricia.
“Well my rookie year, we didn’t go over tackling turnovers as much,” Golladay said of the 2017 season under then head coach Jim Caldwell.
But under Patricia, Golladay said practicing these kind of drills was the norm.
“Patricia set the tone. He said, ‘Offense, defense, this is what we’re going to do: Tackling turnovers,’” Golladay said. “And that’s really just buying into what he’s telling us to do. We literally go over drills like that—punching the ball out, stripping the ball.”
Part of the reason these drills are so important is because defenders aren’t all that used to having the ball in their hands, so their instinctual ball security isn’t as good as offensive players.
“Those opportunities that come up when there is a turnover and you have an opportunity to go basically force the ball back to yourself because of the defenders, sometimes they don’t work on ball security all that much in those situations and there is an opportunity to kind of turn the ball over,” Patricia said back in September.
And for Golladay, that constant practicing during the spring became instinct on game day.
“I really just applied it to the game and I didn’t even think about it. It just came as second nature to me,” Golladay said.
This may seem insignificant or even cherry-picking in the midst of a horrible season, but games often come down to single plays like this. And it’s a direct example of the Matt Patricia hire benefitting the team... even if it was just for one play.