Why T.J. Hockenson may become Detroit Lions’ No. 1 pass catching target with Kenny Golladay out

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Kenny Golladay had an NFL-best 11 touchdown catches last season, but his latest injury — a hurt hip that’s expected to sideline him at least one week — almost ensures that he won’t lead the league in that category again.

The Detroit Lions struggled to push the ball downfield when Golladay missed two games with a hamstring injury earlier this season. Matthew Stafford completed one pass that traveled more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in each of those games.

Stafford was 2 of 4 on those type of throws in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and while both of those completions — a 73-yard bomb to Marvin Hall and a 24-yard pass to Danny Amendola — came with Golladay out of the lineup, the Lions showed no sign of sustaining a deep passing game without their No. 1 receiver.

Hall’s catch came on a third-and-16 nothing-to-lose heave early in the fourth quarter, and Amendola’s came a couple series later, on another third-and-16 with the Lions scrambling to close a 20-point deficit and the Colts playing a soft zone.

Hall, perhaps the Lions’ fastest player, should see an uptick in playing time in Golladay’s absence. He’s been used sparingly this fall, but he averaged a whopping 37.3 yards per catch in limited action last season and is averaging 24.1 yards a catch (on seven receptions) this year.

If nothing else, Hall has the jets to keep defenses honest downfield, and the Lions need that threat to give their lackluster running game room to operate.

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Rookie Quintez Cephus likely will take a large chunk of Golladay’s snaps, too. Cephus was third on the Lions with 13 targets through two games, but has played just 16 snaps since.

The biggest beneficiary of Golladay’s absence, though, could be emerging tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson already leads the Lions with 29 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns, and he said Monday he’s ready if called upon to be the Lions’ No. 1 receiver.

“I think I’m prepared to do what I need to do to help this team, whether it’s being that guy, I’m going to be that guy,” Hockenson said. “If it’s blocking three out of the four downs, I’m going to be that guy. So I think any opportunity that I get, I’m going to try and capitalize.”

For this week’s film review, I looked at Hockenson’s play against the Colts — he had a game-high seven catches for 65 yards — and in the red zone this season to get a better feel for his breakout campaign.

There is a lot to like about what the second-year tight end has done, but he admitted Monday there’s one big negative he must get better at: blocking.

Hockenson has not been as dominant a blocker as you’d expect from the No. 8 pick of the draft, but he’s willing to stick his nose in on run plays and pass protection, and he’s been a plus receiver all season.

In Sunday’s loss to the Colts, Hockenson was used primarily as a backside blocker in the run game and a chip protector on pass plays. He made a nice pulling block on D’Andre Swift’s 5-yard carry early in the second quarter, paving a path through the middle of the line, but he also had back-to-back negative plays on the Lions’ second-to-last drive of the first half that illustrate the team’s struggles on offense.

On first-and-10 from the 25, on the series after the Colts had taken a 14-7 lead, linebacker Darius Leonard blew through a Hockenson block on the left side of the line, obliterating Adrian Peterson’s rushing lane before Peterson could get out of the backfield.

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The opening gave Anthony Walker a free shot at Peterson and caused pulling right guard Joe Dahl to overshoot his blocking lane.

On the next play, Hockenson was called for a holding penalty when he grabbed Denico Autry in a fruitless attempt keep him out of the backfield. The Lions had a deep pass to Golladay dialed up on the play, but needed time for it to develop off a run fake. Hockenson’s inability to block Autry scuttled that.

“Obviously, I need to pass protect better than I did this last week and so I think that’s a point of emphasis for the weeks to come,” Hockenson said.

I would not consider Hockenson a liability blocking, since I counted just one other hit he allowed on Stafford, when he and fullback Jason Cabinda mixed up a protection, giving safety Khari Willis a free lane to the quarterback on Stafford’s first quarter touchdown pass to Marvin Jones.

As a receiver, Hockenson did most of his damage in the first half, catching five of his seven passes for 40 yards before the break. Four of those catches (one was a screen pass) came on the Lions’ two-minute drive, but he still showed an impressive ability to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

I thought Hockenson’s best route came on an incomplete pass early in the second quarter, one play after Hockenson picked up 11 yards on another tight end screen.

The Lions motioned Hockenson out of the backfield to the left side of the line, creating a one-on-one matchup with rookie safety Julian Blackmon.

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Hockenson ran what was essentially a drag-corner route, taking Blackmon just past the inside hash mark on a shallow drag, then breaking outside toward the numbers.

Golladay occupied the lone cornerback on that side of the field by running a streak down the sideline — an example of how his presence will be missed in the coming weeks — and Willis was shading toward the other side of the field, split between Jones and tight end Jesse James.

Stafford overshot Hockenson on the play, or it would have gone for an easy 20-plus yards.

“I see a guy that’s improving each and every day, a guy that it’s super important to,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Tuesday. “He really is trying to be on his details, trying to do the things that we’re asking him to do, and I think it’s starting to show up. I appreciate what he’s doing in the run game. He’s improving there each and every time we go out, and then these last couple weeks in particular you can see him doing a great job of running routes and gaining some great separation and giving us opportunities to get him the ball.”

Hockenson is a mismatch in the pass game, especially against linebackers, and he knows how to use his big body well, which has made him a favorite target of Stafford’s near the goal line.

Defenses will be able to focus on him more with Golladay out, but part of his quiet second half against the Colts was due to the way the game unfolded. 

The Lions opponent this week, the Minnesota Vikings, have weirdly struggled against tight ends this year despite having two good safeties, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, that Bevell said are the strength of their defense.

The Green Bay Packers’ Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger combined for eight catches and 125 yards receiving against Minnesota last week, and the Colts’ Mo Alie-Cox had five catches for 111 yards in Week 2.

With Golladay out, Hockenson might have trouble duplicating those numbers, but he should be even more a focal point of the Lions’ offense.

“I hope I’ve gained the trust of those guys. I hope I’ve gained the trust of the rest of the team,” Hockenson said. “They’re trusting me to do things and they’re trusting other guys to do some things, too, but I think the biggest thing is everyone just needs to do their job and come out on Sunday and perform.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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