Evolution of the Game – Defending the Game Changing Tight End

“… I’ve begun to think about what I expect to see in the 2012 NFL season. I’m speaking more broadly, in terms of the continuing growth of the game. It’s become axiomatic to say the NFL is a passing league. The numbers certainly verify this statement, but there’s more to it than that. I want to drill down deeper and put a fine focus on the transformative relationship between offensive concepts and defensive reaction/adjustment.” – Greg Cosell

Upon his arrival in Cincinnati in the late 1960s, Bill Walsh established the concepts of what has now become known as the “West Coast Offense”.  This offensive scheme used a set of quick drop backs to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and into the hands of his receivers.  Walsh’s West Coast Offense relied heavily on the short passing game as a way to manufacture a running game.  Draw plays – run plays that start out looking like passing plays – saw heavy use as well. More traditional run plays would be used, but they will only be called on when there is unmistakable opportunity to gash the opponent on the ground.

Along with Bill Walsh, Don Coryell helped develop a lot of the offensive philosophies seen in today’s NFL.  Patriots, Saints and Packers fans can look to Coryell and his prolific use of tight end Kellen Winslow in the 80’s as the conceptual basis of how Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley are being used today.  From Greg Cosell:

It was Coryell who first recognized the tremendous value of a tight end with Kellen Winslow, who could align anywhere in the formation and essentially be deployed as another wide receiver … Both Walsh and Coryell forever altered the NFL landscape. It is not overstating the case to acknowledge they laid the groundwork for all that followed: three-, four- and at times five-receiver personnel; multi-dimensional tight ends who align all over the formation; receiving backs who run vertical routes; extensive use of the shotgun. Defenses had to respond, or they wouldn’t be able to compete effectively.

With two tight end sets becoming all the rage in today’s game, defenses are being forced to alter the personnel the deploy to cover these units.  How will defenses respond?  The answer to that question could possibly lie within the 2011 Week 4 matchup of the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders.  Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was in the process of putting together a monster year, going off for 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.  However, he’d run into an unexpected struggle in his meeting with the Raiders, only tallying one reception for fifteen yards.  How did the Raiders manage to contain the beast known as “The Gronk”?  ProFootballFocus did the dirty work to find out:

The reason Gronkowski was so unstoppable last season is because teams didn’t have players that could match up with him reliably and take him out of the game. He is also too big a target–and Brady too accurate a passer–to contain with zone coverage … Oakland went a different route. They eschewed zone schemes in favor of their usual aggressive man coverage, and found a guy who could live with Gronkowski both athletically and physically at the line.

In a league where players like Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are becoming unstoppable forces as teams struggle to match up with them, everybody is looking for a safety with the kind of coverage skills to be matched up one-on-one and win. It turns out the Raiders have exactly what everybody is looking for in the shape of Tyvon Branch, who just might be the best man-coverage safety in the league.

With Raiders safety Tyvon Branch shadowing him all game, Gronkowski experienced his worst output of the 2011 season.  Standing in at only 6’0” and weighing 210lbs., Branch could be viewed as possessing less than ideal size for the task of slowing down the 6’6”, 260+lbs Gronkowski, but he proved himself to up for the task by shutting him down in their matchup.

As teams search for their own version of Tyvon Branch, my focus has locked in on Chicago Bears 2012 third round draft pick, Brandon Hardin.  Hardin, will be making the transition to free safety at the pro level after spending his college career at Oregon State at the cornerback position.  His experience at corner and the coverage skills needed to thrive at that position should make him an ideal fit for any man-coverage safety schemes the Bears may employ.  He also has the measurables that makes him appear capable of filling that role, standing in at 6’3” and weighing 220lbs.  Why should Bears’ fans keep an eye on Hardin’s development?  Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune as that answer.

In a league that is relying increasingly on big, athletic tight ends, defensive solutions are difficult to find. Hardin has the potential to be one.

He is that rare athlete who has strength, length and the ability to turn and run with a tight end such as the Packers’ Jermichael Finley.

And even though safety is new to Hardin, he is experienced at covering tight ends.

“Throughout college I had to cover tight ends,” he said. “That’s fun. With a bigger body, I can use my athleticism and my size. Eventually if I come down and match up with a tight end, that’s in my comfort zone, it’s what I’m used to.”

It’s become almost passe to knock Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defensive scheme as being out of date in today’s NFL.  However, picking up an athlete like Brandon Hardin illustrates that Lovie is well aware of the measures that need to be taken in effort to shutdown potentially game breaking tight ends.

As the the NFL continues to evolve, expect to see more teams make moves to keep up with the most potent playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.

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2 thoughts on “Evolution of the Game – Defending the Game Changing Tight End

  1. This goes along with the development of the nickel back in the NFL. The new Nickel backs must be big/fast enough to cover uber-talented TEs, quick enough to cover traditional slot men (think Percy Harvin), and nasty enough to mix it up in the run/blitz game.
    Hardin may be Chicago’s guy. If they didnt change Danny Manning’s position every 3 games they’d already have an answer to this problem.

    • you know, I was never truly sold on Manning being our answer at either safety position, but that may be because of the amount of times Lovie switched up his role. Ex-Bear Killa Cam Worrell tweeted something a few weeks back saying the that the Cover-2 defense leaves safeties in impossible positions when faced with multiple receivers in their vicinity. I guess you can’t always blame the player – the scheme may be at fault sometimes, which is why Lovie switched to some single-high/man coverages last season …

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