A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
At 25 yards old and entering the prime of his career, wide receiver Golden Tate entered last March’s free agency looking for a juicy new contract.
A month prior, he had won the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks and was coming off of his best season as a pro. Tate posted a team-high 64 catches, 898 receiving yards and five touchdowns while playing in a run-heavy offense. He led all receivers with 21 forced missed tackles in 2013 and owned the lowest drop rate of any wideout with at least 100 targets since 2011. Pro Football Focus also graded Tate as the leagues’ best punt returner.
Yet when Tate hit the open market last year, teams did not come flocking. Maybe it was partly due to his smaller stature or pedestrian counting stats, but the 5-foot-10 receiver was an overlooked commodity in NFL circles. Tate felt under-appreciated after the Seahawks reportedly low-balled him, and few teams outside of Detroit showed serious interest.
The Lions, led by General Manager Martin Mayhew, made Tate a priority and gave him a five-year deal worth $31 million with $13.25 million guaranteed. It turned out to be the best free agent acquisition of 2014.
In his first season with the Lions, Tate smashed his previous career highs. He finished sixth in the NFL with 99 receptions, and seventh with 1,331 receiving yards. He added six receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown in the wild card loss to Dallas.
Tate had never reached 900 receiving yards in a season in four years with the Seahawks, but he surpassed the 900-yard mark in just nine games with the Lions. He posted three games of 100 yards or more with Seattle and never had 130 receiving yards in a game. In 2014, Tate topped 100 receiving yards five times in a six-game stretch, including three games of at least 130 yards.
Tate and Calvin Johnson proved to be a formidable duo, finishing eighth and ninth respectively in receiving yards per game. In previous years, the Lions offense was squarely tied to the play of Johnson. Yet when Johnson missed time early in the season with an ankle injury, Tate proved he could be a true number one option.
He was dominant during Johnson’s three-game absence, tallying 24 receptions for 349 yards (14.5 YPC average) and two touchdowns. Tate quickly became a trusted weapon for Matthew Stafford, and his persona made him a likeable player whom Lions fans gravitated towards. The Lions had finally found a game-breaking receiver to complement Johnson.
Let’s examine the attributes that allowed Tate to be one of the best receivers this season.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi made it a point to put Tate in position to be successful by feeding him the ball in space. Lombardi utilized the bubble screen to yield great success. According to Pro Football Focus, Tate caught 29 passes behind the line of scrimmage. He led all receivers with 691 yards after the catch.
Here was an 11-yard bubble screen to Tate against the Saints. Matched up with safety Kenny Vaccaro in the open field, Tate displayed stunning start-and-stop ability and put a nasty cut on Vaccaro. The safety failed to even touch Tate.
This season Tate forced 20 missed tackles per PFF, tied with the Ravens’ Steve Smith Sr for the league lead. Here’s another bubble screen, this one against the Bucs.
Tampa Bay brought a blitz off the edge, which set up Tate in space one-on-one against the safety. Calvin Johnson pinned the corner to the outside, Tate gave the safety a subtle stutter-step to throw him off balance, broke the tackle attempt and scooted upfield for 19 yards.
Tate consistently made plays like these, proving to be a mismatch in space against nearly anyone.
Tate is not a big receiver, but he revels physical play and isn’t afraid to make plays in traffic.
Against Atlanta, the Lions were pinned at their own 7-yard line trailing 21-19 with 1:38 remaining.
The key play of the game-winning drive was the first play. Tate ran a go-route down the seam and made a leaping grab between three defenders for 32 yards. The football (circled in blue) was perfectly placed by Stafford.
Tate, who took two hard shots to his lower back earlier in the game, showed courage by high-pointing the ball while knowing his body was exposed to another possible bone-crushing hit. This reception gave the Lions plenty of breathing room and sparked the game-winning drive.
Late in the first half against Chicago on Thanksgiving, Tate ran a post against a Tampa-2 defense. The middle linebacker dropped into the vertical seam over the middle to take away a typical Cover 2 beater like a seam or post route.
Tate hauled in the pass and took hits from the middle linebacker and safety but held on for 24 yards. Calvin Johnson scored on the next play.
Reliability and Physicality
Against the Bears three weeks later, Tate outmuscled two-time pro-bowl corner Tim Jennings on a crucial third-down to pick up 34 yards and a fresh set of downs. Tate battled Jennings to win this contested pass.
Tate displayed a physical style of play all year and never shied away from contact. He was Stafford’s go-to receiver in several high-leverage situations, including on fourth-and-two later in this game.
Big Play Ability
Tate’s knack for big plays this season elevated him to elite status. Here’s the play that solidified his imprint on Detroit.
Facing New Orleans in week seven, the Lions trailed 23-10 with four minutes to play. The odds were heavily against them as they confronted a third-and-13 from their own 27-yardline.
The Saints played Cover 3 defense to take away the deep ball. Tate was slotted to the right and ran an out-route short of the sticks. Slot corner Corey White was playing a buzz zone, meaning his coverage landmark was near the sideline playing deep-to-short. Brandon Pettigew flared to the flat to try to draw White’s attention, but the corner did not bite.
White was in excellent position against Tate, but the receiver came back to the ball while White floated away.
Tate then displayed his yards-after-catch (YAC) ability by taking this ball to the end zone to ignite an incredible comeback victory.
The best part is the reaction by Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who looked around incredulously, then stared daggers at an assistant who patted him on the shoulder. Classic Ryan family reaction.
In the playoffs against the Cowboys, Tate jump-started the Lions with a 51-yard touchdown. Matched against trash talking safety Barry Church, Tate ran an out-and-up and left Church sprawled on the turf. Tate then ran away from the deep safety for the score.
The signing of Tate was more than a bargain; it was a steal as he exceeded expectations with a remarkable season. Unfortunately, the offense failed to meet expectations due to inconsistency and poor play around him.
However without Tate, this team would not have won 11 games and secured a playoff berth for just the second time in 15 seasons.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.