Last week, Detroit Lions linebackers coach Mark DeLeone praised Jahlani Tavai for what he has seen from him ahead of Organized Team Activities (OTAs). DeLeone said he was “really impressed,” that the third-year player was “doing a great job” and “was in really good shape.”
Today, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn continued where DeLeone left off, speaking highly of Tavai and elaborating on the weight loss.
“I tell you what, (Jahlani) Tavai is looking really, really good for us right now,” Glenn told the media on Day 3 of OTAs. “I think he has lost like 17 pounds. He’s moving well. He’s another guy that is catching my eye, as far as guys who can run.”
Glenn would say later that Tavai was “in the 240s now, which is pretty good”. Dropping 17 pounds and still being in the 240s means Tavai was playing in last year's scheme somewhere near the 260-pound range. That would explain a lot about his performance in 2020 and is another indictment of the previous coaching staff's strategy for using players.
All offseason, Lions writers—myself included—have stated it’s unclear how Tavai fits into this new scheme based on what we saw from him under former coach Matt Patricia. But Glenn stated that Tavai’s weight loss showed a discipline he looks for, and with it has come a pleasant surprise of athleticism.
“We challenged him for the weight we wanted him to come back at,” Glenn said. “I think that is the measure of discipline. When you tell a player ‘this is what I want you at’, then (he) comes back and he is there, then that’s the first thing.”
“The second thing is just his movement,” Glenn continued. “To be as big as he is—now he did lose a lot of weight—but to be as big as he is, he can move fairly well. That was good to see, a man of that size that can move like that. Then, his ability to bend and get out of cuts, that was pretty impressive.”
Glenn also plans to use Tavai in a different manner than what we have seen over the last two seasons.
“He played on the edge a lot in the last system,” Glenn said. “and we want to put him as a stack backer. Allow him to be covered up and allow him to go make plays.”
Patricia used Tavai primarily as an edge setter and gap filler, which often left him in the lurch when he was tasked with other assignments. Covering up a linebacker by putting him behind a defensive lineman forces blockers to deal with the lineman first; there is no open route to the second level defender, keeping that linebacker clean to shut down gaps or pursue. Glenn plans on using Tavai as an off-the-ball linebacker and setting him up to succeed with the scheme.
“We're going to make it simple for him,” Glenn continued. “Make his reads simple. Put him in a position where he can be covered up. Any linebacker will tell you: ‘if I can be covered up and I can run and get the ball, hell, that’s what I want to do’.”
Like the rest of the new defensive scheme under Glenn, there are going to be formations that look eerily similar to the defense we have seen the last three seasons—but the concepts are going to be drastically different.
Will that benefit Tavai? So far, two coaches appear to think so.