In today’s NFL, tight ends have become a major weapon in the passing game. Two top-10 offenses, New Orleans and San Diego, are pass-first teams that feature a tight end as the leading receiver.
Chip Kelly is a big fan of receiving tight ends, but his offense this year has functioned mostly out of 11 personnel -- three wideouts, one tight end. And his tight ends are asked to block almost as much as they’re asked to stretch the field.
In their win over the Lions on Sunday in the driving snow, all three of Kelly’s tight ends -- Brent Celek, James Casey and Zach Ertz -- were asked to help the offensive line protect and block against the NFL’s most imposing defensive line.
On several runs, the Eagles ditched their signature zone blocking scheme to double team both Lions standout defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. With two men blocking Suh and two more on Fairley, the Eagles had only one lineman against two Lions defensive ends, so a tight end frequently was tasked with blocking the other by himself.
Let’s look at three specific plays in which tight ends were instrumental in the blocking assignment.
In the LeSean McCoy run sequence below, left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis line up to double team Fairley while center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans prepare to tag-team Suh.
Celek, lined up next to Peters on the left side, will single up defensive end Devin Young. Celek gives up about four inches and more than 10 pounds to Young, who is stretched outside in the wide-nine formation.
As the double teams are executed inside, Celek engages Young on the outside, creating a nice gulf for McCoy to run through. Despite the size mismatch, Celek gets good leverage, using his left arm to fend off Young, the closest Lion to McCoy.
Celek doesn’t stop there. He gets a last-second shove on safety Louis Delmas as they both go to the ground, enabling McCoy to slide out of Delmas’ ankle tackle and pick up 14 yards.
“When you do get matched up with someone bigger than you, it's not just a battle of brute force,” Kelly said. “It's really the technique and the leverage that he's using. It is a technical position. The defensive ends are bigger than Brent, so he has to be good at the technical part and he is. That's one of his strengths.”
Tight ends in Kelly’s offense are often asked to trap block -- also known as the “bend back” -- which requires them to run across the line of scrimmage and seal off the unblocked defender or blitzer on the opposite side.
It’s an overlooked responsibility, because the backside defender or blitzer is usually furthest from the ballcarrier when the run starts. But because of cutbacks, it’s imperative to have the backside sealed.
On the Chris Polk 38-yard touchdown run, tight end James Casey executes the block to perfection. Casey starts off on the right side, next to right tackle Lane Johnson. After the snap, he races to the left and confronts Delmas, who’s blitzing from the edge as the Lions load the box with nine.
In this instance, Casey’s block becomes crucial. Fairley and Suh push the pocket on the right side, forcing Polk into a quick cutback to the left. Casey gets his body on Delmas, creating a nice lane for Polk to squeeze through.
Polk has only linebacker DeAndre Levy to beat, which he does. From there, Polk has nothing but green (and white) ahead.
“It's huge, just because a lot of our plays are cutback plays,” Kelly said. "That means what really didn't start at the point of attack ends up being the point of attack.”
Although Ertz is frequently split wide in Kelly’s schemes, the rookie is also asked to line up in an in-line, traditional three-point stance, which he didn’t do much at Stanford. On Nick Foles’ third-quarter touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson, Ertz lines up in an H-back formation and is assigned to single block defensive end Israel Idonije. Once again, double teams on the inside against Suh and Fairley put the tight end in a 1-on-1 situation.
Idonije (6-6, 275) has more size and body than Ertz (6-5, 250), but Ertz is able to ride Idonije to the inside as Foles executes the play fake.
“They have the running start,” Ertz said, “and we can’t get collapsed. The biggest thing is to stay strong on the inside. The guy was inside of me, so I had to make sure he didn’t beat me around.”
By the time Idonije shakes away from Ertz, Foles is outside the pocket and eyeing Jackson and Riley Cooper in the right side of the end zone.
“The goal was to get Nick out of the pocket and scrambling a bit,” Ertz added. “They had a fearsome front four, so we had to make sure to move Nick every now and then to keep them honest on that play. My job was to seal the edge and let Nick make a play.”
Mission accomplished. Foles had time to lob the ball into the end zone, where Jackson made a nice adjustment for the touchdown.
“You have to have quick feet [when blocking a bigger guy],” Celek said. “You have to have good hand placement on him, but the biggest thing is quick feet.”