TIGHT END USE IN THE PASSING GAME vs. MINN 2009 (through 3 Quarters)
- NUMBER of PASS PLAYS: 29
- NUMBER of PASS PLAYS WITH AT LEAST ONE TE in the GAME: 21
- NUMBER OF PASS PLAYS WHERE THE TE RELEASED INTO A ROUTE: 3
The TE releasing a total of 3 times (2 by Ballard, 1 by Stoneburner) is a pretty amazing stat. The rest they were involved in slide protection as I discussed before.
In light of that, this second point may seem academic but I still think worthwhile, revolving the TEs role if they do in fact release on pass patterns. For the vast majority of teams, the TE is not the primary route runner on the vast majority of plays--unless you are in a situation where you have an Antonio Gates and he is your best threat. OSU is therefore by no means in the minority in not featuring the TE when they do release.
To take one example, here is a link to Norm Chow's dropback passing game. As many know, Chow is really one of the designers of the modern passing game.
As you'll see, most patterns do not make the TE as the primary receiver--those that do generally being short, over the middle option and choice patterns. And, as several have noted, OSU has largely thrown the ball outside the seams this year, likely to try and reduce interceptions. As such, there are not many times when the TE is the primary threat. That the TE is not generally featured is even more true when you look at Chow's design for those plays for 3 WRs or more (this being a little dated when 2 x 2 formations were far more prevalent). The TE becomes even less of a primary threat as the slot receiver often takes his place running the primary inside receiver route.
"Smash" is an example of this. This is a basic route that every college team runs against cover-2 and its variants. Basically, the idea is to 'hi-lo' the cover 2 corner and make him commit to either the short or deep route, giving you a 2 vs 1 advantage. (For more on smash, check out here: http://smartfootball.blogspot.com/2008/01/divide-route-in-multiple-smash-concept.html). Take a look at Chow's various diagrams of the play.
As you can see, the play can be designed with the TE running the corner route. But, as you get to 3 and 4 WRs, it often becomes the inside receiver who runs it, and who generally offers a more vertical threat (or to put it another way, who would you rather have going deep, Devier Posey or Jake Ballard?).
And, likewise, OSU would generally rather go multiple WRs and run these route combinations with their 2 WRs to a side, rather than the TE. Here is OSU running a similar type of pattern against Minnesota (this is not quite a smash, as the receivers do a switch and it is the No. 2 receiver doing the short route, while the No. 1 receiver runs a post corner, but the same hi-lo principle applies).
The point of all this is to say that it is not unique for OSU to not feature the TE as the primary target on the majority of their pass plays. Instead, the TE is usually found by Quarterbacks who are reading through their progressions and check off to them. In this way, the TE's role in the passing game is somewhat equivalent to a counter play in the running game--if the secondary is going to cheat to take away my primary (outside targets) then I will go to the TE. For example, check out this discussion of USC's TE (McCoy's) day for ND:
As they state, every time Barkley hit McCoy ND was on some type of blitz and Barkley found the mismatch with McCoy covered by a LBer.
So a lot of times, how involved the TE is in the passing game derives not from play design but rather the QB successfully reading his progressions. This year, however, Terrelle Pryor does not generally seem to be going through his entire progression. Instead, he generally locks onto one or two receivers (Dane or Posey) and if they are not there either forces the ball or runs. So the coaches may think the trade-off between sending him into patterns and keeping him in to block when he may not get the ball regardless favors the latter.
The other place the TE is a factor is play action and short yardage, as they have the advantage of being able to threaten to block and then release (again see McCoy versus ND). But even there, you have to find the TE and hit him (remember the goalline play action pass to Ballard against Purdue?). But more generally it is again just a choice by the OSU coaches to focus on throwing to the WRs outside on play action as well, as the clip above shows.
In sum, it comes down to primarily scheme, but also execution. The coaching staff has decided to focus on protection first, and worry about getting 4 or 5 wide receivers into pass patterns second. I offer a variety of reasons why they may try to do so in a previous post. Personally, I as a lot of people, would like to see the TE a bit more involved in the passing game, for two primary reasons:
1) because they are the best placed to immediately threaten safeties down the field and thus keep them from cheating up in run formations, and
2) because, as mentioned above, they have the threat of both blocking and releasing for a pass on play action, so they can occupy two defenders (the one the TE would be blocking and the one responsible for covering the TE).
But you have to walk before you can run and the coaches have clearly decided to first focus on a) pass protection and b) giving Pryor less to worry about so that he can make a couple of reads and then run the football if nothing is there. Eveything breaks down without decent pass protection (see Purdue) so it is hard to fault them for that choice. My guess is that this will likely be the primary focus throughout this year. Though we have not seen much of Jake Stoneburner in the passing game thus far, his playing time is increasing and one hopes that, as a former Wide Receiver, he can offer more of a threat from the TE position heading forward.
As I mentioned before, finding the TE often falls on the QB to make the right reads. Here is a play action bootleg against Wisconsin where Stoneburner came wide open across the middle, but Pryor never got his eyes downfield as he tired to elude the DE-pause at the very end and you can see how open he was...