The first weekend of the 2018 NFL season saw some interesting storylines play out throughout the NFL schedule. From the defending Super Bowl Champions winning on opening night through the debut of Sam Darnold and the return of Jon Gruden, opening weekend delivered. For three quarterbacks facing interesting circumstances, their offensive coaches looked to help them in the passing game by creatively using tight ends as part of the aerial attack. Here’s a look at how Jimmy Garoppolo, Alex Smith and Andrew Luck relied on their “Y" tight ends this weekend.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
We’re still using that expression right?
Alex Smith’s debut in the burgundy and gold propelled Washington to a season-opening win in Arizona over the Cardinals, and in the process head coach Jay Gruden secured his first season-opening victory in five tries. Gruden himself referenced the “monkey” on his back with four consecutive losses to open seasons, but it was the play from Smith, as well as RB Adrian Peterson that gave Washington the win.
Smith completed 21-of-30 passes for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and one of the players on the receiving end of a touchdown toss was TE Jordan Reed, who had been battling injuries throughout the past few seasons. That touchdown came on a mirrored slant/flat concept that had Reed (#86) working out of the slot:
What this play highlights is how creative Gruden was in moving his tight ends around Washington’s formations, giving the offense advantages in the passing game. In fact, Washington’s first passing play of the season put Reed in the slot, implementing a basic post-snap run/pass option play:
Here, Smith (#11) is reading the linebacker to Reed’s side of the field. Should he stay in an underneath zone after the play begins, Smith will hand the ball off. But once that 'backer crashes down on the potential running play, Smith pulls the football and quickly hits Reed on the little slant route. Tack on a personal foul from Tre Boston (#33), and Washington is into Arizona territory.
This next play is a great example of how an offensive play can be constructed to achieve dual goals: Stretching the defense horizontally and vertically while still giving your quarterback a simplified read structure. Facing a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Smith aligns in the shotgun and once more, Reed is in a slot to the right, and the offense is in a standard 2x2 alignment:
Here is the route design Washington uses:
Notice how this play design first stretches the defense from sideline-to-sideline, with a pair of routes in the flat and vertical routes down each side of the field. Then Reed runs a shallow crossing route over the middle. This design forces the defense to cover at multiple levels of the field, stressing them from short to deep. But it also gives Smith two different half-field reads. On this play he is flushed from the pocket, but that crossing route from Reed is a great safety outlet:
Finally, another creative way Gruden used his tight ends was by combining pre-snap alignment with blocking assignments. On this first-and-10 play late in the first half, Washington first aligns using “Y-Iso,” a 3x1 formation with the tight end alone on one side of the field:
Then Washington motions RB Chris Thompson (#25) out toward the single tight end, Vernon Davis (#85). They run a simple smoke screen to the running back, who now has a tight end in front of him by alignment, and later a right tackle moving upfield in front of him as well:
That forms a nice little convoy for Thomas, and Washington is on the move. Gruden would cap off this drive with the first play we examined, the short throw to Reed for a touchdown. By creatively using his tight ends, Gruden put Smith in position to succeed, and Washington in position to knock that monkey of its head coach’s back.
George Kittle: Focal Point
During Jimmy Garoppolo’s five-game run to close out the 2017 season, the San Francisco 49ers relied heavily on two-back formations in the passing game. As outlined in this piece, the 49ers used 21 personnel — two running backs, one tight end, two receivers — 42 percent of the time when Garoppolo was their starting quarterback, a number well above league average. But when the Niners lost RB Jerick McKinnon to a season-ending injury, their focus may have shifted a bit.
Enter George Kittle. The second-year tight end out of the University of Iowa had five receptions for 90 yards in San Francisco’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings but as we will see, his day could have been even bigger.
First we can start by highlighting how creative offensive coaches can set up plays over the course of the game. In the second quarter, Kyle Shanahan called two consecutive passing plays designed for Garoppolo to hit Kittle. On the first, Kittle (#85) aligns in a wing to the left, and Garoppolo (#10) is in the shotgun with Alfred Morris (#46) standing to the right of the quarterback. The 49ers show a zone running play (sometimes referred to as “split-zone”) with Kittle looking like he is blocking to the backside on a slice block. But Garoppolo keeps the ball and simply releases it to Kittle as he continues into the flat:
San Francisco catches the Vikings in man coverage here, and linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) has to try and chase him down. He does, but not before Kittle has gained 18 yards.
On the very next play, Shanahan calls Kittle’s number again. The 49ers line up with Garoppolo under center and in a 2x2 formation, with Kittle in a wing to the right this time:
This time the 49ers use a stretch play-action look, with Garoppolo faking a handoff to the right edge before peeling to the left and looking for Kittle, who again comes down the line of scrimmage, only this time into the left flat:
Once more, Vikings’ linebackers are forced to chase sideline-to-sideline, and the visitors have an easy gain of 13 yards.
So why does Shanahan call those two plays? Because he’s looking to set up something bigger. Something better. One of everyone’s favorite plays: Y-Throwback:
This play comes from early in the third quarter. The 49ers show a running play to the left, while Kittle, who aligns on the right side, blocks down with the rest of the offensive line. But then he releases across the formation before breaking vertically up the numbers, and he is wide open. Garoppolo’s pass is just a step too far, and the Niners miss a chance for a big play.
On the very next play, Garoppolo threw a pick-six. Game of inches and all that...
Finally we can talk about Andrew Luck, who returned to the football field after over 600 days away dealing with a lingering shoulder injury. While the Indianapolis Colts lost to the Cincinnati Bengals Luck showed some of the talent and execution that made him a No. 1 overall draft pick and one of the better QBs in the game. He completed 39-of-52 passes for 319 yards and a pair of touchdowns, along with one interception. Under new head coach Frank Reich, the Colts’ offense has more of a West Coast passing flavor, with the bulk of Luck’s passes (48) thrown shorter than 15 yards.
With question marks at receiver after T.Y. Hilton, it might come as no surprise that Luck looked to his tight ends throughout the contest. All three contributed in the passing game, as we are about to see.
On this third-and-3 play in the second quarter, Reich uses formation and personnel to dictate the defensive package, and then opens up the passing game. The Colts come out using '13' offensive personnel, a three-TE package, and put Luck (#12) in the shotgun. Seeing this personnel group, the Bengals stay with their base 4-3 defense:
However, the Colts are running a straight passing play:
On the right side of the formation, the Colts have both Jack Doyle (#84) and Eric Ebron (#85) in a two-TE wing, a look we will return to. On the left side aligns tight end Erik Swoope (#86). The Colts run a Mesh concept using these three players, with Doyle and Swoope running the crossers underneath (after Swoope chips the backside defensive end) while Ebron runs the “sit” route over the middle:
Luck hits Swoope, and thanks to the traffic created by the mesh, as well as the fact he’s working against a linebacker because of Cincinnati's defensive personnel group, the reserve tight end picks up 13 yards and a fresh set of downs for Indianapolis.
Doyle, a player in his sixth season in the NFL, has been a security blanket for Colts quarterbacks for the past five years. He did have a fumble late in this game that ended any chance of an Indianapolis comeback, but prior to that mistake he was targeted 10 times in the passing game, with seven receptions for 60 yards. This third-and-4 play from the third quarter is a good example of how Reich looks to utilize Doyle as a possession-type receiver.
The Colts use “Y-Iso” here, putting Doyle on the left with a reduced split from the left tackle, while three receivers align on the right side of the formation. Here is the offensive concepts Indianapolis uses on the play:
On the three-receiver side, the Colts run three slant routes, while Doyle and RB Jordan WIlkins (#20) run a basic curl/flat combination, with the back heading to the flat and Doyle running his curl route underneath. The linebacker, upon seeing Wilkins release to the outside, vacates his underneath zone for a few steps, which is all Doyle and Luck need to connect on a short throw to move the chains:
Before Luck’s injury, Doyle was a favorite target of his quarterback, as Doyle caught 59 passes on 75 targets in 2016. Doyle’s numbers did increase last year as he developed a great chemistry with Jacoby Brissett, but you can expect that Doyle will be a security blanket option that Luck will look to early and often in 2018.
Now we can look at Ebron, who caught one of Luck’s rare deep attempts for a touchdown on a very creatively-designed play. Facing a second-and-4 at the Cincinnati 26-yard line, the Colts line up with '12' offensive personnel, putting both Doyle and Ebron on the right side in that two-TE wing look we outlined previously. Indianapolis has a slot formation to the left, and rookie RB Nyheim Hines (#21) in the backfield with Luck. Cincinnati responds with a 4-2-5 nickel defense:
Hines then shifts out wide to the right, which pulls the cornerback toward the sideline:
Here is the design from the offense:
We can start with the defense, which is in a Cover 2 coverage. The Colts have the perfect play to counter this, and it starts with the pre-snap movement from Hines. By putting him out well toward the boundary, it pulls the cornerback away from the dual vertical routes from Doyle and Ebron. The post from the backside slot receiver occupies the backside safety, which then puts the playside safety in a bind between the two vertical routes. Hines just runs a quick smoke route, which puts the corner in a bad spot as well.
What happens next is football art. The cornerback wants to help cover Ebron, but he is forced to respect a potential throw to Hines so he cannot fully commit to help on Ebron. The safety also sees what is happening but has to protect the middle of the field because of Doyle’s route. That leaves a linebacker one-on-one with an athletic tight end in Ebron:
For more on this play you can check out a video breakdown here.
Three quarterbacks, three interesting storylines as they begin a new season. For Luck, Smith and Garoppolo, tight ends were a focal point for their passing games on Sunday. Whether that trend will continue, or defenses devise ways to slow them down, is a storyline that will unfold over the rest of the campaign.