In Spread, Tight End Better Be Blocking
By Ken Pryor
Much has been made of Jake Stoneburner’s return for his senior season at Ohio State, and rightfully so. To be sure, Jake’s time and role with the Buckeyes has been sort of an enigma almost from the day he arrived on campus.
While he has been a very bright light in the offense at times, there was one area in which Jake has struggled. He hasn’t always earned all the playing time he/we would have liked because his blocking needed improvement.
My mom always tells me “in any marriage, someone in the relationship had better always be praying.” Well, at The Ohio State University, the tight end better always be blocking! Else your time on the field will be significantly diminished.
This often hurts the offense by tipping your hand to the defense. They know it is a probable pass play when the “non-blocking” tight end enters the game.
While everyone agreed his athletic gifts were quite numerous, there was much debate as to where Stoneburner’s skill set would best be utilized when he arrived at Ohio State. Jake will never be classified as a burner, but he does possess enough speed along with his pass-catching ability to have played wide receiver.
On the other hand, his body type suggested his future would be at the tight end position. He seemed destined to put on weight (as all underclassmen invariably will do in muscle mass). The mass generally serves to slow a player down, which inevitably slotted him for the tight end position.
At tight end, his ball skills and speed would present a “match-up nightmare” for opposing safeties and linebackers. The same could now be said for second-year tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, both of whom bring considerable skills to the table as weapons in the passing game.
It certainly looks like Ohio State is set at the tight end position, but now the question is how they will be utilized.
Buckeye Nation is abuzz with the possibilities of having such lethal weapons at the disposal of a coach who actually seems to look forward to the opportunity of utilizing them. In the team meeting the morning after the Gator Bowl, Urban Meyer reportedly told Stoneburner he “would make him an all-American.”
No reason to think he won’t keep his word.
We have seen Meyer do this before with Aaron Hernandez at Florida. New offensive coordinator Tim Herman also had much success with his tight end, James Casey, at Rice. Casey is now in the NFL playing for the Houston Texans.
Walk with me on this comparison for a brief moment:
James Casey (Rice.) under Herman in 2009 had 111 catches, 1,300 yards and 13 TDs.
Jake Stoneburner under Bollman for 3 years has 37 catches, 445 yards and 9 TDs.
Buckeyes fans have to be absolutely giddy at the prospects for Ohio State, but don’t jump for joy just yet. While the tight end is clearly an integral part of the passing game for Meyer and Herman, it is equally necessary in the run game. Stoneburner can really set himself up nicely as an early round draft select by vastly improving his blocking.
Here’s why: Countless teams have adjusted to the spread offense by shifting to the nickel “package” as their every down base defense. Even the Buckeyes do this using the “Star” position instead of a third linebacker. Many teams will employ a three-man front while bringing an extra “alley” defender down near or deep into the tackle box. As a result, offensive coaches have expressed serious concerns with how to block that extra man.
This “overhanging” defender is placed on the edge as a force defender, where he becomes problematic for the offense that wants to gain access to that perimeter alley.
Enter the tight end in the form of 11 personnel (one tight end and one back), 12 personnel (2 TE/1 back), or 21 personnel (1 TE/2 backs). Whatever the package, the tight end is key.
Using the tight end in spread formation provides two advantages:
- It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space unfettered. Now he’s forced to get busy. He must account for and cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.
- It provides for the matchup nightmare in the run game: Many of these smallish safeties don’t really want the work. These players usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range. They are no match against bigger tight ends where they must stick their nose in the fray and fit in the framework of stopping the run game. Most of them want no part of this action.
It would be very difficult to stay in 10 personnel (no tight end), as the tiny slot receivers would be no match for the bigger safety/linebacker hybrids. It’s all about matchups.
The following graphics show how the spread employs a “Tight Wing” formation with two tight ends (Y & U). One TE is on the line while the other is off the line, thereby making both eligible receivers. This also allows for the offense to “motion” a TE to another area where he can provide for blocking reinforcements or as an added weapon in the passing game.
One of the things to like about this design is it forces the defense to show its hand, as they generally will bring the safety down to cover the tight end. Now Meyer and Herman know where the strength side is located. Even if the defense remains in “two-deep” coverage, the offense still knows where the alley can be had.
In diagram two below, we see the TE (U) motion to a TRIPS look where he occupies the nickel back. Here they are running the ball the opposite direction, to the boundary, in a zone-blocking scheme. The corner is unblocked, but his first responsibility is containment on the outside. We eventually get a one-on-one matchup in the third level of the defense between the running back and the safety.
Coaches like their running back’s chances in this instance.
There are different ways to influence the over-hang or alley player depending on whether he has positioned himself as a run or pass first defender. Quarterbacks are taught to read the alley by checking the alley player’s horizontal width. If he’s inside the safety, he is undoubtedly a run-defender because he is closer to the tackle box. If he is truly a pass defender, his alignment is going to be closer to number two (inside) receiver.
The final diagram is one I find quite interesting, if for no other reason than the name. It is entitled the “Gator Concept” by former NFL tight end Ben Coates. Coates serves as the offensive coordinator for Central State University in Ohio. Like Many coordinators, Coates feels the best way to gain access to that alley is with a pure and simple downhill attack via the run game with toss plays. In keeping with that thought, the last diagram below shows Coates’ “Gator” employed to run toss from the tight bunch formation.
The number two receiver (usually the Y/tight end) up on the line of scrimmage will block that alley/force player. The number one receiver makes a beeline to the deep safety, while the most inside receiver releases to block the corner.
Other teams pull the tackle to get that corner, but Coates does not like the matchup from an athletic standpoint. Instead, the tackle pulls with his eyes looking for a second level player, such as a linebacker or safety.
It is safe to say Jim Heacock was right when he said defenses are playing catch-up with the offenses, especially as it relates to the spread attack. By using a tight end in spread schemes, offenses will remain a step ahead of the defenses for a while.
The tight end becomes an extra blocking surface, but he also allows offensive coordinators to manipulate the defense, making them declare where they are going to bring the extra player.
As always, offensive football is all about numbers, space, and leverage. Identifying a numbers advantage in a pre-snap read is immeasurable.
Stoneburner’s pass-catching abilities are not to be questioned, but if he really wants to be the all-American/early round draft selection, those achievements may well rest on his ability to go out and block his man. Make no mistake about it, his blocks will be key for springing big runs for Ohio State. The same goes for Heuerman and Vannett as well.
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