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Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

08 Oct 2014

Scramble for the Ball: Amorphous Tight Ends

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Tom: One of the things that really struck me in last week's column was the sheer number of tight ends who were, early in the season, on pace to have 1,000 receiving yards. Looking at NFL history, 1,000 yards is a milestone achieved by only a few tight ends, and never more than three in a season. Except for Joe Senser and Pete Retzlaff, every tight end on that list is famous, or at least well known to fans of modern football, by which of course I mean that I can mentally picture him and have an idea of his game.

A couple years ago, I declared receiving tight ends to be just oversized slot receivers.

Mike: Wait a minute, there.

Yes, tight ends are increasingly featured in the passing game. Yes, tight ends are increasingly being drafted based on their receiving ability first and blocking second. But all of the top tier of tight ends, even Jimmy Graham, are still tight ends. They still block competently, and they're still willing to give support to beleaguered tackles. While tight ends have been getting more quality targets recently, passing numbers in general have exploded in the past few years. So who's to say that the new generation of tight ends with gaudy numbers isn't just another subset of beneficiaries from the current offensive explosion?

Tom: True. That's what struck me about the whole Jimmy Graham debate. He's claiming he's a wide receiver, and he lines up in-line with his hand in the dirt next to a tackle more than every actual wide receiver in the league put together. That's the kind of assertion I don't have the specific numbers to back up, but I'm comfortable making anyway. It's when I normally use the words "almost certainly."

Mike: A rare peek behind the curtain of Tom's lawyer brain at work.

Tom: Last offseason (before 2013), I wrote a column on matching up to 12 personnel. And, hey, most teams played base against those two tight end sets. I'm not going to replicate all of that work for this column, but a brief glance at the numbers for 2013 shows defenses playing four defensive backs against 12 personnel 78 percent of the time.

When I wrote about Jimmy Graham a couple weeks ago, I noted one important thing Greg Cosell mentioned: it's precisely because Graham is a tight end that creates matchup problems. Kenny Stills lines up out wide, a defense automatically lines up a corner against him. Not so with Graham; some teams play a corner, some a linebacker, some a safety.

I think that emphasizes that my dismissive comment a couple years ago was not quite right. Tight ends may sometimes align like slot receivers, but they're not. Instead, the better comparison is to the players whose role they've taken over in the passing game: running backs.

Mike: Passes downfield to tight ends are far more numerous than downfield passes to running backs ever were. I'm not sure you can draw that conclusion.

Tom: Yeah, you're right. It's not a perfect comparison. It's not even a good one in some regards. The tempting argument would be that we're seeing an evolutionary transition from tight ends as running back-like catchers of short passes to tight ends as wide receivers. I'm not going to raise that argument, though, because the general trend in the NFL is for shorter completions.

It's really weird, tactically, to think of how things used to work, with receivers averaging 20 yards per catch. I'd love to see a distribution of, say, Paul Warfield's 43 catches for 23.2 yards per in 1971. Were NFL teams really ignoring intermediate throws that badly, or were they just that much less efficient of a proposition than they are today?

Mike: I think the simplest explanation is that many teams have been using the short passing game as a kind of running game. It's effective, they're high-percentage plays. But the tailback is yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the receivers are paired up with defensive backs. So if you're going to throw a quick dart that isn't a hitch or slant, your sure-handed tight end matched up against a linebacker who is almost certainly not going to play press is just a no-brainer.

Tom: The Saints are the best example of that, and they're a great one, but every team?

Mike: The Patriots and Broncos also have a steady diet of short, quick passes to tight ends. I don't think every team can pull it off, no, but those with quality quarterbacks can and do.

Tom: The league as a whole averaged 11.6 yards per completion in 2013. Twenty-five years earlier, 24 of the 28 teams averaged at least that much.

The fundamental problem I'm trying to solve here is building a conceptualization of the geometry of the football field. How much has that changed since Sid Gillman did all his work in the 1960s, and what does the evolution of this weird position we call "tight ends" have to do with that? I know, that's a wonky, esoteric, and quite possibly just weird topic, but I think it could be useful in thinking through and beyond the more micro concerns.

Mike: Considering this is roughly the fourth different form the tight end has taken since Gillman, that subject in particular is probably beyond the scope of this introduction.

Tom: I've been on a weird kick lately where I'm trying to build a Theory of Everything I Can, so I can just process new inputs into that and get a solution without specifically solving for it. It's a neat thing when it works, and frustrating when you can't build the right model.

Mike: Just so long as you don't try to link the livery of seisin to Jerryworld, I think we'll be OK.

Tom: Like I can't afford to buy the Buffalo Bills, I don't think I can afford the float to handle the maintenance and day-to-day expenses on that building even if I took it over. Enjoy your building, Mr. Jones, I don't really want it.

Lessons Learned

Mike: My lesson is that I should stop worrying and start to love the Falcons' offense. I was horrified this year when I ended up with Matt Ryan on both of my fantasy rosters. Atlanta's passing offense was decent last year, maybe even pretty good considering the injury issues it had to overcome. So I was nervous going into this season, to the point where I even burned a later-round pick in each draft on a second-tier quarterback with the illusion of upside to make myself feel better.

Now five weeks in, the Falcons have the third-best passing attack and ninth-best running game in the league. I doubt the latter is sustainable, but the passing offense is firing on all cylinders, and I think I need to drop some of my likely overwrought skepticism.

Tom: They had three first downs on their six non-garbage possessions in the second half. I'd hold on to at least a little bit of that skepticism, even if Matt Ryan is performing yeoman's work behind an injury-riddled line.

Mike: Eh, one bad half, as you say. And Ryan himself has looked excellent

Tom: As for my lesson, it's time to give credit to the Cleveland Browns. The defense has struggled, but they gave a previously effective Titans run game fits on Sunday. The offense meanwhile looked pretty good. They ran the ball effectively, with more consistent success than I thought watching the game live. I was skeptical of Brian Hoyer in the preseason, being hailed as the savior despite a DVOA no better than Jason Campbell's last year. As Vince pointed out in Quick Reads, he's been the second-best quarterback in the league in the second half by DYAR. Is he the seventh-best quarterback in the league, as DVOA has him? I'm not sure about that, but in that offense right now he can be at least a Matt Schaub-lite highly functional quarterback. And I'm not talking about a broken-down Matt Schaub, either, but the one who quarterbacked some good offenses for five or six seasons. Oh, and this offense gets Josh Gordon back in a month, so they're doing this without their Andre Johnson. Could they be this year's version of the Chargers?

Mike: No. They can have more offensive success than Cleveland has seen in a long time, however.

Tom: Yeah, you're right. But they'll stay on my radar for at least a few more weeks, which is not something I expected when the season began.

Loser League Update

Loser League results for your team for this week and the Loser League season to date are available on the LL results page. The top Loser players of the week at each position are highlighted here.

Quarterback: If you average 2.5 yards per attempt and turn the ball over, you probably have a good/bad Loser League score, at least as long as you cross the attempts threshold. Geno Smith did, and his -1 point is the low score of the season for the position.

Running Backs: Putting Donald Brown on this list is literally adding insult to injury, as he had 26 yards rushing before a concussion knocked him out of the game. Matching his 2 points was C.J. Spiller, who got there an unusual way: 10 carries for 8 yards for 0 points but 25 receiving yards.

Wide Receivers: Remember when Cordarrelle Patterson was the savior of your fantasy team? Yeah, me neither. At least he doubled John Brown's receiving yardage. Of course, that was 8 yards to 4, so 0 points for each of them.

Kicker: The low scorer of the week was not Loser League eligible, which made Nick Folk's day of near-complete idleness (just one snap, on a kickoff, 0 points) the third participant in the Chargers' blanking of the Jets to make the LL honor list.


Keep Chopping Wood: NFL kickers made five-sixths of their field goal attempts from 40 to 49 yards and two-thirds of their attempts from 50 yards and beyond in 2013. Alex Henery's results from Detroit's 17-14 loss to the Bills on Sunday: no good from 44 (hit right upright), no good from 47 (short), no good from 50 (wide right). Result Monday: Henery unemployed.

Mike Martz Award: Riddle us this, Marvin Lewis: Tom Brady likes to attack the middle of the field. He does not have a good deep ball, so he relies even more on those short to intermediate throws over the middle of the field. Most Patriots opponents seem to concentrate on taking away that middle of the field. Yet Sunday night, Brady repeatedly found open receivers in his comfort zone. How does this sort of thing happen to a team that had been so successful defending the pass in their first three games?

Lock of the Week

Tom: I started doing a little quick pick 'em league with some people I know this year. I don't publicly note my picks, since I spent, oh, almost 45 seconds picking the entire week's slate of games. But I went 13-2 last week. The only two teams to let me down: the Detroit Lions and their kicking struggles, and, of course the team I picked as my lock last week. The Chicago Bears not only didn't win straight-up, they failed to cover after going up 14 points. I am now 2-2, while you are 0-4 after trusting the Cincinnati Bengals in a prime-time game. As a reminder, lines are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing.

Mike: This is ... certainly embarrassing. Part of the problem when you're on a really bad streak is that you start second-guessing yourself. The poor results make you distrust the normally sound process that leads you to your conclusions, and it really does a number on your ability to analyze.

I'm just going to bear down and note that the Denver Broncos are the best team in football, again. The New York Football Jets are in the lower third of the league, again. There is no part of this match up, on paper, that looks good for the Jets. Eight points at home is a lot, but this by all rights should be a blowout of epic proportions. Denver Broncos -8 at New York Jets.

Tom: How much do I trust our numbers?

Mike: This seems like a test.

Tom: Nominally, by our ratings, the Colts-Texans line is nuts. The Colts are favored by 3 points on the road on a short week. They have a DAVE of 2.7%. Houston's is -9.4%. That's a difference like that between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Yet Cleveland is favored by 2 points, roughly the line our numbers would suggest. New England at Buffalo is a similar sort of situation as Indianapolis-Houston. But I think those teams could actually be as good as the lines indicate.

Mike: But Cleveland had that amazing comeback last week!

Tom: I'm instead going to go in a completely different direction and trust in those Cincinnati Bengals. They're playing at home in the regular season. They'll run the ball well against Carolina, and they will run the ball. Cincinnati Bengals -7.5 vs. Carolina Panthers.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower on 08 Oct 2014

7 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2014, 8:44pm by Jerry


by Travis :: Wed, 10/08/2014 - 7:21pm

The low scorer of the week was not Loser League eligible, which made Nick Folk's day of near-complete idleness (just one snap, on a kickoff, 0 points) the third participant in the Chargers' blanking of the Jets to make the LL honor list.

The only Jets detailed were Geno Smith and Folk. Was Chris Johnson (would have been 0 points, but had only 7 carries) supposed to be the third?

by DEW :: Wed, 10/08/2014 - 11:58pm

Donald Brown. Third player from that game, not third Jet.

by Travis :: Thu, 10/09/2014 - 1:58pm


by herewegobrownie... :: Wed, 10/08/2014 - 9:43pm

"Yeah, you're right. But they'll stay on my radar for at least a few more weeks, which is not something I expected when the season began."

These "few more weeks" are, on paper, CLE's best chance to get wins on the board, so you picked the right time to keep them on your radar. Not only are they slightly favored vs. Pitt, but next on deck are @ Jacksonville, plus home games against Oakland and Tampa Bay.

But their occasional sleepwalks on defense, expected to be their strength, like in the first halves @ Pitt and Ten are maddening and could make any of those losable.

by theslothook :: Wed, 10/08/2014 - 10:22pm

I really need to a good but not great passing game from the 80s and 90s to see what exactly they were doing then that they aren't doing now. I suspect part of it was general conservative gameplans - featuring more runs and passes short of sticks. There is actually an inverse relationship between drives and yards/tds - suggesting more teams were just not picking up first downs as much - probably due to lots of running.

by Dr. Gamera :: Thu, 10/09/2014 - 1:06pm

Thanks for the pointer to the "livery of seisin", of which I had heretofore been unaware.

by Jerry :: Thu, 10/09/2014 - 8:44pm

I came across this in http://sportsblogs.post-gazette.com/sports/steelers-steelers-blog/2014/1... I don't mean to bash Gonzalez, but just to point out that the position really has changed.

The Steelers use their tight ends the old-fashioned way, they must block and receiver. Here is what Michael Palmer told me about his job when he played in Atlanta with another “tight end,’’ Tony Gonzalez, who retired as the second-leading receiver in NFL history behind Jerry Rice:

“I blocked a lot in Atlanta because of Tony. I basically did all the stuff Tony didn’t want to do. He went out and caught passes and I did all the other crap.”