Allen Park — Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai is on the roster bubble, but even after a disappointing performance in the preseason opener, both the player and team’s coaching staff remains outwardly optimistic about his ability to carve out a role.
That will become increasingly difficult to justify if Tavai can’t fix the fundamental errors he made during Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills.
During a second-quarter drive — his first series of action as an inside linebacker with Detroit’s second-unit defense — Tavai was stiff-armed by running back Devin Singletary while attempting to make a third-down tackle.
Then, later in the possession, Tavai made a critical error in coverage, allowing Singletary to leak free from the backfield for an easy touchdown reception.
“It was a busted coverage is what happened there,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Monday. “That was a player that knows better. He’s normally on it and he missed it. (Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) talks about that all of the time, we all do, it’s like, ‘Man, you had one breakdown and those things happen.’”
Inside linebacker coach Mark DeLeone tried to shift some of the blame for the blown coverage to himself, for not putting Tavai in position to make the play, but the linebacker was having none of that.
“We’re the players, it’s on us to execute that, and it was just me losing eyes and I got to fix that,” Tavai said. “Luckily it was a simple thing that I just got to fix. Just got to get ready for Pittsburgh and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Publicly, the Lions continue to support Tavai. On Monday, Campbell praised the linebacker’s intelligence, effort and physicality.
“He puts everything out that he has into it,” Campbell said. “I think there are certain things he does well. He’s really a hammer. Particularly, he’s probably a first-, second-down inside linebacker. So, there are things he can do, and I think it’s up to us to put him in the best situation to have success, too. So, it’s twofold. He does everything you ask him to do and he gives it everything that he has got.”
Since being selected in the second round of the 2019 draft, Tavai has been one of the team’s more scrutinized players. Fair or not, that’s what happens when you’re drafted well ahead of where most analysts projected.
Two years later, many fans are ready to write it off as one of many failed experiments under the previous regime, but new general manager Brad Holmes and Campbell wanted to take a closer look, exhausting all options before making a decision. They asked Tavai to drop some weight, a significant amount, and were impressed when he showed up to the offseason program approximately 20 pounds lighter.
Tavai certainly looks the part of an inside linebacker in the team’s new defensive scheme, and he admittedly feels better at the lighter weight, with less daily strain on his joints. Now the Lions just need him to start playing better if he’s going to stick around beyond training camp.
“I’m going to do whatever I h ave to to make sure I keep doing it,” Tavai said. “My goal is to be on defense. I want to be a starter, that’s the biggest thing. I’m also going to make sure I’m good with (special-teams coordinator Dave) Fipp on special teams. I’ll do whatever, basically, to make this squad.”