Thursday, January 19, 2012

Divisional Round Reaction, Part 2: From L.T. to Gronk and Jimmy

And just like that, the future direction of the NFL is more obvious than ever. 

The 1980’s introduced a new era of football strategy and personnel.  Lawrence Taylor terrorized offenses thanks to his unparalleled and never-before-seen ability to take down opposing quarterbacks when rushing from his outside linebacker position.  A game against the Giants meant opposing offenses were going to spend all week planning against the original LT.  Unfortunately, such attempts rarely worked.  Taylor’s style of play revolutionized NFL offensive and defensive positions alike. 

As Sandra Bullock knows, offensive tackles, particularly at the left tackle position, needed to change in order to prevent this from being a regular occurrence.  You can define the NFL in two ways: before LT and after LT.  The magnitude of the widespread changes that came during and after his reign has not been seen since – that is, until now.  
Maybe Bullock should consider joining the football
maidens of CBS.
We’ve seen a fair share of new offensive developments over the past five years.  The spread offense, the dual running back system, and the Wildcat/option have all grown into favor throughout the league.  Yet, it seems as though these changes were all done in response to existing trends rather than as a reaction to a dynamic player.  The spread offense was a consequence of antiquated rushing attacks and the overuse of the I-formation.  As the emphasis on a passing game has increased, so has the demand for a running back that can rush as well as receive.  When you couple this with the overall wear and tear on an every-down tailback, it becomes obvious why using multiple running backs became favorable.  The wildcat, which has already begun to fall out of favor, was introduced as a gimmick by an inferior Dolphins team to pull a how-the-hell-could-we-have-prepared-for-that win over the Patriots.  There’s certainly nothing transcendent about one player who cannot pass handing the ball off to another player who cannot pass.

Finally, though, there is a development that will stand the test of time.  We are now entering a new age of football and with it will come a wide variety of strategic changes for teams in terms of offensive and defensive personal, play call, and draft targets.  Just as dynamic pass-rushing linebackers and agile offensive linemen have seamlessly wound themselves into the fabric of the NFL, so will the newest player progression. 

Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez made an official announcement during the Divisional Round: The tight end is the new centerpiece of the NFL offense.

There are three components to this column: the Divisional Round results, the statistical backing, and the defensive solution. 

Part 1: The Divisional Round Results
(Skip this section if you think talking about this past weekend would make me a “prisoner of the moment.”)

The four men listed above produced a whopping 544 total yards and eight touchdowns this past weekend.  If you take the top four offensive performers in any given weekend, you may not see such a staggering total. 

The numbers don’t even tell the whole story. 

Graham’s 103 receiving yards included a spectacular 66-yard go-ahead touchdown reception in the final minutes of Saturday’s game against the 49ers in which he caught the ball in the middle of the field like you’d expect a NBA power forward to bring in an alley-oop.  Brees simply lofted the ball towards his big target and let Graham do the rest, which consisted of spinning out of a poor tackle before running another 40 yards to the Baja.  Meanwhile, Davis, who already had a 37-yard game-changing reception prior to that of Graham, took over on the last drive, recording a 47-yard reception before squeezing onto an Alex Smith pass at the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.  Both Smith and Brees went to their tight ends in the clutch. 
For all the talk about Graham and Gronkowski, Vernon Davis is
probably the best athlete of them all
In the later game, New England tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, were the major reasons for the Patriots' demolition of the Broncos.  Gronkowski, as he had been all season, was Brady’s first option early in the game.  The two got in a rhythm, producing three first half touchdowns. Additionally, Belichick, who always seems to be involved in NFL phenomenons in some fashion, moved Hernandez to the backfield, which resulted in a 43-yard run.  By the start of the second half, the game was essentially finished.

The difference between this NFL-wide revolution and previous ones is that the changes are being brought about because of multiple players.  Graham and Gronkowski may be the poster boys for the domination of the tight end, but it seems as though most offenses are trying to establish their own superstar at the position. 

Slowly but surely, offenses are realizing that the tight end is the game changer.  Even the best wide receivers, running backs, and/or quarterbacks can have their impact minimized by a single defensive player who can match up talent wise.  But, there isn’t a safety, cornerback, or linebacker who has the size, speed, and man coverage abilities to run with the top tight ends. 

Part 2: The Statistical Backing
(Skip this section if you pretty much already believe everything I say and don’t need to hear about decade long trends)

To further understand the impact that tight ends have had around the league this season, I decided to see how many tight ends led their respective teams in receptions, receiving yards, and/or receiving touchdowns.  The results were telling.  Twelve teams this season had a tight end lead them in at least one of the three main categories.  Even more interesting is that only three of those teams were under .500.  Additionally, Washington tight end, Fred Davis, was the only tight end in the top-ten receiving yards for the position to be on a team with a losing record. 
Anytime someone with the number 24(a DB #)  is guarding a
tight end, something has already gone wrong
I then took my research a bit further and investigated the role of the tight end position for each of the teams to make the postseason.  The average regular season numbers for the starting tight end on a playoff roster are 62 receptions, 762 yards, and 6 touchdowns.  You might think these numbers are a bit skewed from Gronkowski and Graham (Hernandez was not included in the calculations as he is not the number one), but consider that the total numbers also include Broncos tight end, Daniel Fells, (good for just 19 receptions and 256 yards) and Jake Ballard (38 receptions, 604 yards).  To put the staggering yardage total in perspective, from 2001 to 2010, a tight end finished with greater than 762 receiving yards only 50 times.  The back third of the decade, from 2001-2003, contributed just seven to the 50.  Thirteen tight ends went beyond 762 yards in 2011 alone.

Some might argue that this is attributed to increased passing across the league.  That is simply incorrect.  Over the last three seasons, a wide receiver has surpassed 1,000 yards 53 times, 1,200 yards 22 times, and 1,400 yards six times.  From 2001-2003, receivers went over the 1,000 yard mark 59 times, the 1,200 mark 29 times, and the 1,400 yard total six times.  In other words, whereas the individual accumulation of statistics for tight ends has grown over the decade, the total for wide receivers has actually had a slight decrease.  If improved tight end play was solely because of amplified passing, you’d expect to see a similar increase for wide receivers. 

Part 3: The Defensive Solution
(Skip this section if you don’t care about the future of the NFL, in which case you have probably already wasted your time on this article)

Lawrence Taylor’s impact in the NFL would have been far less reaching were it not for the subsequent evolution, not just for teams defensively, but offensively as well.  If this tight end phenomenon is to have a lasting impact, defenses will need to adjust their entire approach to defending the position.  Actually, let me correct that statement.  If defensive coordinators have any objections to tight ends going for over 125 yards in every game, then defenses will need to adjust their entire approach to defending the position.    

Middle linebackers are not getting the job done against the tight end and the reason for this is simple; they have too much on their plate.  Inside linebackers need to be responsible for stopping the run once the running back makes it past the defensive line.  They are often forced, therefore, to add on additional weight, thereby sacrificing speed.  They’re also the defensive signal callers, which means not only are they watching the quarterback’s every move, he’s watching theirs.  If the linebacker moves over to guard the tight end in man-to-man coverage, good NFL quarterbacks will notice, at which point the best ones will attempt to exploit the mismatch.  Using the linebackers in a zone scheme is an option, except how often do teams devise only zones to shut down a wide receiver?  The best way to eliminate a wide out is to play tight man coverage with safety help, but this is something virtually impossible to do against the tight end with less shifty linebackers attempting to go man-to-man.

Defensive backs cannot match up against the elite tight ends either.  I certainly don’t need to explain what happens when a 6’ 1”, 200-pound individual gives up four inches and 50 pounds to the guy they’re supposed to be “covering.”  The results are comical.      

If you want proof of all of this, look no further than Graham’s 66-yard touchdown mentioned earlier.  The 49ers tried to do exactly what I am contending is virtually impossible against the elite tight ends.  Patrick Willis (who, mind you, is probably the fastest linebacker in all of football) was in man coverage with Graham with Donte Whitner playing safety over the top.  Graham was, essentially, covered.  But there is simply nothing defenses can do when all Brees needs to manage is an average throw in Graham’s general direction.  Willis wasn’t agile enough to turn around to the ball while in man coverage and Whitner was far too small to either (A) get in front of Graham, (B) knock the ball out once the catch was made, or (C) make the open-field tackle. 
This picture shows it all.  Even the NFL's best middle linebacker
is not yet qualified to play man-to-man against the tight end
At least in terms of shear athleticism, the most impressive and talented positions in the modern NFL are the tight end and pass rushing outside linebacker/defensive end.  I spoke a few weeks ago about the impact these defensive monsters are having in their ability to disrupt the passing game.  After all, it was LT who initiated this OLB transformation and, ironically, it is that same position that will need to evolve once again, except this time it is in response to the offense. 

It is not enough anymore to have guys like Terrell Suggs, Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Pierre-Paul employed almost exclusively to rush the passer and defend the run.  Just as offensive tackles needed to become quicker during and after the days of Taylor, so do the pass rushers of today.  They are the only ones that possess the physical talents to match up with tight ends, possessing similar size, speed, athleticism, and quickness.  However, much work needs to be done in their coverage abilities but such adaptation seems easily within the realm of reason.

Everybody reading this column knows all about the creative swim and spin moves of the modern pass rusher and these can be modified into an effective physical man coverage strategy.  Pass interference and defensive holding flags are thrown about like shirts blasted out of t-shirt guns at a basketball game, but you have to think that, even in today’s game, refs will allow some extra leeway between two very physical positions.  Pass rushers are already proficient at another skill that an occasionally blitzing middle linebacker may not have: shiftiness. They need to be able to quickly change direction once a run or screen is called.  This ability is at least related to maybe the most difficult part of man coverage: turning to play the ball. 

It’s not like pass rushers never play man coverage. However, what I am calling for is more than the occasional red-zone matchup.  They need commitment to improving their coverage abilities.  The dedication that pass rushers have for recording sacks needs to be at least as great as their efforts in man coverage against the tight end.  If the ends and outside linebackers can understand and accept that they might need to sacrifice four or five sacks per season in order to reduce the impact of the tight end, then defenses would certainly be heading in the right direction.  You run the risk of spreading a player two thin, but this is the skill set that must be developed in the offseason for teams to prevent showings like the ones we saw this past weekend.   


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