There’s been a lot of talk this off-season concerning the state of the tight end position in Pittsburgh. The Steelers struggled to get their tight ends involved in the offense in 2019 and debate has centered on whether they should move forward with their current crop or look to upgrade through free agency or the draft. This article examines the growing importance of the tight end position around the league and why, whether it be a personnel move or a scheme change, the Steelers would be wise to place a greater emphasis on the position.
As a kid I grew up watching three of the greatest tight ends in football history: Dave Casper, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome. I loved how they were jacks-of-all-trades, mixing it up with the big guys inside while being able to catch and run, too. Winslow’s epic performance in a 41-38 playoff win at Miami in 1982, where he caught 13 passes for 166 yards while battling dehydration, a pinched nerve and severe cramps, stands as one of the great individual performances in league history. Casper, aka “The Ghost to the Post,” was a nemesis in the Steelers’ furious rivalry with the Raiders during that era.
But Casper, Winslow and Newsome (and later, guys like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez) were outliers. Most tight ends in football history were smaller, more athletic linemen whose primary responsibility was to block. They were often regarded as secondary targets in the passing game, best used off of play-action or in the red zone when defenses were keying the run. They were rarely seen as vertical threats or primary receivers. Tight ends were foundational, like bass players in rock bands, overshadowed by their flashier, seemingly more valuable counterparts at running back, quarterback and wide receiver.
In the early 2000s, however, colleges began introducing spread formations that put extra receivers on the field in place of traditional fullbacks and tight ends. This allowed inferior teams like Kentucky (whose coach, Hal Mumme, is credited with popularizing the Air Raid philosophy) to compete with SEC giants like Auburn and Alabama by spreading the field and emphasizing quick passing concepts. Because the spread left just five primary run blockers up front, teams compensated by devising zone-read schemes that incorporated quarterbacks in the run game and allowed them to leave a box defender unblocked. An offensive revolution ensued.
The NFL never quite subscribed to the pure spread philosophy, however. Professional defensive backs were too fast to maximize some of the benefits the spread schemes offered and franchise quarterbacks, who were now routinely paid tens of millions of dollars per year, were too valuable to use as running backs.
But pro teams did phase out the fullback in favor of a third receiver to take advantage of changing rules that made throwing the football easier and more beneficial than ever before. Overwhelmingly, they began to base out of 11 personnel formations that provided the extra receiver while retaining a tight end who could serve as a sixth in-line blocker. This way they could continue to hand the ball to tailbacks and, in addition to inside and outside zone, run the gap, sweep and power schemes around which pro rushing attacks were constructed.
The switch from 21 to 11 as the NFL’s base personnel group increased the value and importance of the tight end position. More than ever, tight ends had to be solid blockers at the line of scrimmage (to compensate for the removal of the fullback) and vertical threats in the passing game (to accommodate the spread-based schemes that were trickling up from the college game). Because NFL defenses often responded to 11 personnel groupings by removing a lineman or linebacker in favor of a fifth defensive back, finding a tight end who was versatile enough to block a defensive end on one play and split out to exploit a coverage match-up against a strong safety or slot corner on the next became increasingly important.
Those who question the value of these hybrid-type tight ends in today’s NFL offenses would be wise to keep their eyes on #87 in red and #85 in white while watching this weekend’s Super Bowl. Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and George Kittle of the 49ers are two of the league’s premier tight ends, each capable of taking over a football game with their combination of size, speed and power. How premier are Kelce and Kittle? Sunday’s match-up will mark the first time in Super Bowl history that the league’s First and Second Team All-Pro selections at the position (Kittle and Kelce, respectively) will take the field together. The duo combined for 182 receptions and 10 touchdowns this season as feature pieces in two offenses that couldn’t be any different in style.
For all of the emphasis on passing in today’s NFL, the 49ers are the rare organization that remains married to a bygone era. They base out of 21 personnel and, to paraphrase the late, great Prince, run the ball like its 1999.
San Francisco finished second in the league in rushing yards per game this season and their ground game was unstoppable in playoff wins over the Vikings and Packers. The key to their success has been a Shanahan-influenced zone blocking system around which the 49ers have constructed their dominant attack.
When I say their run game is “Shanahan-influenced” I’m referring to Mike, the father, who won a pair of Super Bowls in the 1990s on the legs of Terrell Davis and who made 1,000 yard rushers out of guys named Olandis Gary and Rueben Droughns. Mike’s son Kyle is the current coach of the Niners but it’s his father’s old run scheme that makes the offense go (Mike Shanahan serves as a consultant to his son and has had a significant impact on the construction of the 49ers run game). Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszcyk are the type of smash-mouth guys who fit perfectly in Shanahan’s throwback scheme and allow it to flourish.
Conversely, Kansas City’s offense is as contemporary as it gets. It’s built around dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has wrestled the title of World’s Best Quarterback away from the Old Guard of Brady, Brees and Rodgers. It’s also an Andy Reid offense, which means it’s heavy on shifts, motions and formations while featuring a good amount of misdirection and West Coast-style throws. The thing that makes it so modern is how much it borrows from college influences. The Chiefs feature myriad tempos, read options, quarterback movements, funky formations and creative gadgets. Whereas the 49ers look to bludgeon opponents with a power run game, the Chiefs confuse them with an array of looks and concepts designed to create mismatches and get their athletes in space.
While Shanahan’s blocking scheme sets the tone in San Francisco and Mahomes is the magic man in Kansas City, neither offense could do what they do without their prolific tight ends. Kelce was tremendous in Kansas City’s 51-31 win over Houston in the AFC Divisional Round, catching 10 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns. Kittle’s physical presence on the edge helped San Francisco rush for an astounding 471 yards in their two playoff wins. The two players impact the game differently but with equal effectiveness by offering versatility at the position that is unmatched by their peers. This versatility is essential in today’s 11 personnel-driven league.
Here’s some of Kittle at his best. Because San Francisco is so run-heavy, defenses load the box to take away their rushing attack. According to NextGen stats, the 49ers faced more eight-man boxes than any offense in pro football this season. The fact they ran the ball so successfully despite these looks is a tribute to their offensive line. As we can see in the GIF below, the eighth defender doesn’t matter much when the guys up front move people off the ball like this:
Kittle played a large role in the success of the run game, too. Here he is in the NFC Championship game opening a chasm in the C-gap by driving Green Bay’s edge defender five yards towards the sideline:
Those eight-man boxes also meant the Niners saw a lot of single-high coverage. Kittle was the biggest beneficiary of that, as San Francisco’s use of play-action often freed him from underneath defenders and provided him plenty of room to run once he caught the football. Kittle led all NFL tight ends in YAC (yards after the catch) this season with 641. He totaled 1,053 receiving yards for the season, meaning just over 60% of his yards came once the ball was in his hands. Routes like the one below, where the combination of play-action and Kittle’s athleticism allowed him to shake free of coverage then make things happen as a runner, were integral to San Francisco’s success.
In Kansas City, Kelce has been employed quite differently. Kelce is what teams call a “move” tight end, meaning he is motioned around a lot and used in a variety of roles. The Chiefs do use Kelce in a traditional sense with his hand in the ground but they are just as likely to put him in the backfield as an H-back or detach him as a receiver. Kelce led all tight ends in receptions this season while aligned as either a slot or split end, showing how much Kansas City values his ability to win in coverage against defensive backs. The creativity of Kansas City’s offense and their willingness to move Kelce around means he can run just about any route from any look one can imagine.
Below we see Kelce split wide at the bottom of the screen. The Chargers are in a cover-2 zone and Kelce runs a corner route, which is a traditional two-high beater. The thing that makes this route remarkable is how much separation Kelce gets from the safety who, as a half-field defender, is responsible for the deep corner. Kelce pushes the safety into a backpedal with his release and, although we can’t see it in the clip, creates separation with a precise break. If you didn’t know better you would have figured a speed receiver created that sort of separation against cover-two, not a 6’5-260 pound tight end.
Here’s Kelce in one of those creative KC formations at the back of a four-receiver bunch on the goal line. There’s nothing special going on here - Mahomes takes the snap and whips the ball to Kelce, who rumbles into the end zone - but having a player of Kelce’s size who can move like he does is special enough. There’s not much a defense can do once he catches the ball and squares up towards the goal line:
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how an individual like Kittle or Kelce could transform the Steelers offense. Kittle and Kelce are special, of course, as players with their blend of size, speed and power aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Still, there are options out there who represent lesser versions of what these two elite players can do, beginning with Pittsburgh’s own Kittle-esque tight end, Vance McDonald. Ironically, Kittle’s emergence in San Francisco made McDonald available, and the Steelers landed him in a trade in 2017. McDonald is neither a blocker nor receiver on Kittle’s level but he is a similar style of tight end - physical at the point of attack and dangerous with the ball in his hands. No Steelers’ fan will ever forget this play from 2018 as evidence of what McDonald looks like at his best:
One way the Steelers could immediately upgrade the offense would be to pair McDonald with an athletic “move” tight end in Kelce’s mold. Several are available in free agency, including LA’s Hunter Henry and Indy’s Eric Ebron. The Chargers may wind up tagging Henry and even if they don’t he could command more on the open market than Pittsburgh can afford. Ebron, then, is an intriguing option.
Ebron’s size and physical stature may, for some, conjure uncomfortable memories of the failed Ladarius Green experiment. They indeed have similar frames and are both long-striders. Throw in the fact that Ebron’s 2019 season ended after just 11 games when he opted to have surgery to repair an ankle injury and the similarities may scare people away. However, prior to this year, Ebron missed just five games in five seasons. What the Steelers desired when they signed Green is what they would be getting in Ebron, only without the injury history. He is a big, fast tight end they can motion around the formation, use to stretch the field and create match-up problems for defenses.
The knock on Ebron is that he’s not an accomplished blocker. With McDonald prone to injury, bringing Ebron in as a replacement for current backup Nick Vannett would leave the Steelers without a run-blocking tight end should McDonald go down again. Vannett is a solid if unspectacular blocker capable of anchoring down those duties in McDonald’s absence. However, he is nowhere near the receiving threat Ebron represents. In a perfect world, a McDonald/Ebron pairing would give the Steelers a wealth of possibility with what they can do at the position and would make them difficult to defend from a variety of personnel groups.
If not Ebron, or one of the other available free agents at the position, there’s always the draft. Dave Schofield wrote recently about several tight ends the Steelers could target who participated in last weekend’s Senior Bowl. Given the lack of an immediate-impact tight end in the draft, I’d look to the free agent class for a player who can help the offense right away. But, if players like Henry, Ebron or Austin Hooper prove too expensive, the Steelers may have no choice but to draft one. Steelers’ fans can decide for themselves which option, and which player, they would prefer.
To maximize the effectiveness of whomever plays tight end for the Steelers in 2020, there is going to have to be more of a concerted effort to involve them in the offense. A couple of years ago, when the Steelers featured Antonio Brown as their #1 receiver with an emerging Juju Smith-Schuster as his sidekick, it was understandable that the tight ends were relegated to a secondary role. Brown is long gone, however, and Juju struggled to cement himself as a #1 receiver in Brown’s absence. With young receivers Diontae Johnson and James Washington still proving themselves at the pro level, and Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury, now is the perfect time to alleviate some of the pressure on the receivers by carving out a larger role for the tight ends.
Once the Steelers make their off-season moves and settle on their tight end personnel, we’ll examine what that larger role might look like. In the meantime, enjoy the Super Bowl on Sunday and try not to be too jealous when you see 87 in red and 85 in white putting on a show.