featuring the TE against a Tampa 2 defense: little to no evidence for it

Another part of Easterbrook’s “feature the TE” hypothesis states that good teams use their TE on seam routes against the Tampa 2 defense. This seems plausible, and it also seems testable. While looking over the TE targeting stats, I noticed some teams, such as the NY Giants, seems to always face opponents that target their TE a lot. Is this because those teams run the Tampa 2 often, and their opponents are throwing to their TE more in response?

The relevant statistic to examine to answer this question is the ratio of TE targets to total passes thrown.  So, in order from the highest ratio to lowest, here are the stats from 2006:

Rank Defense TE-target to pass ratio
1 Philadelphia 0.211429
2 Buffalo 0.208577
3 Carolina 0.208
4 New Orleans 0.204641
5 Kansas City 0.197629
6 Denver 0.195167
7 Tennessee 0.192453
8 NY Giants 0.188713
9 Tampa Bay 0.188641
10 Washington 0.187243
11 Miami 0.187123
12 Dallas 0.18591
13 Houston 0.180198
14 Cincinnatti 0.18018
15 NY Jets 0.178571
16 San Diego 0.17658
17 Baltimore 0.166994
18 Cleveland 0.166333
19 Indianapolis 0.166265
20 Jacksonville 0.164436
21 Green Bay 0.163107
22 Arizona 0.159004
23 Atlanta 0.157282
24 New England 0.15251
25 Oakland 0.148781
26 St. Louis 0.148559
27 Pittsburgh 0.147448
28 Detroit 0.1409
29 San Francisco 0.137066
30 Minnesota 0.128548
31 Chicago 0.118761
32 Seattle  0.1170635

It is perhaps suprising, given Easterbrook’s hypothesis, to see that of the ten defenses that inspire TE-targeting the most, only one is a prominent Tampa 2 defense (Tampa Bay, #9).  Chicago’s defense, ranked #31, which is nominally a Tampa 2 team but in reality plays Tampa 2 only about 1/3 of the time, saw opponents target their TE only 11.9% of the time.  Other prominent Tampa 2 teams are Detroit (#28) and Indianapolis (#19).

These numbers do not offer much support to the part of Easterbrook’s hypothesis that says featuring the TE is a good way to counter the Tampa 2.  It is always possible that head coaches are unaware of the hypothesized benefits of featuring the TE against a Tampa 2, but I think it’s more likely that the determining factors of whether a team features the TE in a game are: 1.  the studliness of the TE, and 2. the speed of the linebacking corps.  It doesn’t matter what sort of defense San Diego is playing, for example.  They will feature Antonio Gates regardless.  Ditto Winslow, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten.  But they might consider featuring them a little less if they are being covered by good coverage linebackers such as Brian Urlacher or Julian Peterson. 

I will attempt to follow up on that thought in a future post.

the Easterbrook “feature the TE” hypothesis

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Gregg Easterbrook hypothesized last week in his TMQ column on ESPN.com that featuring the tight end (i.e. throwing to the TE a lot) is a common feature of winning football teams.  Easterbrook states this is because tight ends can take advantage of the weaknesses of the Tampa 2 defense, which is supposedly all the rage in the NFL these days. 

Let’s take a closer look at Easterbrook’s hypothesis that featuring the tight end helps define a winning team in the era of the Tampa 2 defense.

Here are the total number of times tight ends were targeted by each team in 2006 (taken from stats kept by fftoday.com):
Team: TE Targets
Arizona: 47
Atlanta: 118
Baltimore: 142
Buffalo: 39
Carolina: 62
Chicago: 92
Cincinatti: 33
Cleveland: 165
Dallas: 116
Denver: 71
Detroit: 42
Green Bay: 110
Houston: 51
Indianapolis: 136
Jacksonville: 85
Kansas City: 103
Miami: 114
Minnesota: 67
New England: 125
New Orleans: 68
NY Giants: 129
NY Jets: 45
Oakland: 62
Philadelphia: 102
Pittsburgh: 55
San Diego: 137
Seattle: 66
San Francisco: 96
St. Louis: 34
Tampa Bay: 78
Tennessee: 100
Washington: 100

The team targeting its tight ends most in 2006 was Cleveland, with 165 targets. The top 12 teams were (* means that team made the playoffs):

1. cle
2. bal*
3. sd*
4. ind*
6. ne*
7. atl
8. dal*
9. mia
10. gb
11. kc*
12. phi*

8 out of 12, or 66%, of the top TE-targeting teams made the playoffs. But this statistic could simply indicate that teams that pass more overall tend to make the playoffs; teams that are generally pass-oriented would probably pass to the TE often as a byproduct of being a pass-happy squad.

Let’s examine a more telling statistic: the ratio of TE targets to passes thrown. By this measure, the top 12 teams are:

1. cle
2. sd*
3. atl
4. bal*
5. nyg*
6. ind*
7. ne*
8. dal*
9. kc*
10. ten
11. sf
12. was

Now only 7 out of the top 12 TE-featuring offenses (when passing) made the playoffs. 

 These stats seem to support Easterbrook’s hypothesis that featuring the TE is correlated with winning, but they do not say anything about whether that correlation arises from the defensive schemes offenses face.  Does Cleveland throw to its TE more than any other team in the league because they face more opponents running the Tampa 2 defense?  Or is it because Kellen Winslow, Jr. was the best weapon on their offense in 2006?

I will attempt to test that part of the hypothesis, that featuring the TE is the best response to an opponent running the Tampa 2, in my next post.

why Griese succeeds where Grossman failed

I don’t believe in Brian Griese as a “playmaker”. I do, however, believe in Griese as a smart quarterback. I’m also sure that Grossman has better physical quarterbacking abilities, such as arm strength and a quick release, than Griese.

This is not to say that I don’t think Griese will win many games this year at the helm of the Chicago Bears. He will. But so would any journeyman QB who is smart enough to use his tight ends and check down receivers rather than go for the wideouts on every pass. It might be a mere coincidence, but recall the games that Grossman won last year and who his best receivers were. Almost inevitably, Desmond Clark pops into mind.

Gregg Easterbrook, in his weekly TMQ column, makes the case that winning teams seem to be those teams that feature the tight end (although he ignores some losing teams that also feature the tight end, such as the Cleveland Browns and Kellen Winslow, Jr.). His reasoning is sound: against the Tampa 2 defense, the tight end is often covered by a linebacker rather than a safety. Furthermore, the safeties usually stay deep to prevent big plays in the Tampa 2, so the tight end can take advantage of the seam or area between the zones of the corners and the safeties – if the quarterback is smart enough to take 5 to 10 yard passes instead of going for the 20+ yard options that wideout routes often offer.

Grossman is blessed and cursed with a strong arm and quick release. This led him to try to go for the big play more often than he should have; in those games where he utilized his tight end(s), the results were much better.

Griese, so far, has had similar results. In Griese’s two starts, he has targeted the tight end trio (Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen, and John Gilmore) a total of 23 times (14 for Clark, 7 for Olsen, and 2 for Gilmore). 14 of those passes were caught.

In Griese’s two starts, he has already thrown 14 passes Desmond Clark’s way, whereas Grossman targeted Clark a total of 12 times over the first 3 games of the season. Clark’s stats with Griese at QB have been: 7 receptions for 44 yards and 1 TD vs. the Lions and 3 receptions for 62 yards and 1 TD vs. the Packers.

On the other hand, Grossman targeted the tight end trio a total of 16 times over the first THREE games. 12 were caught.