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.