We’ve encountered exploitation stagnation, and I’m determined to find a way around it.
It’s true that tight ends have become a more central part of NFL passing attacks over the past decade, with athletic tight ends running more pass routes from the slot, blocking less, and seeing more targets come their way. That, sadly, hasn’t led to a consistent increase in the number of fantasy points allowed by defenses who give up the most production to tight ends.
The 10 worst defenses against tight ends have allowed about the same number of fantasy points per game over the past five seasons. Targeting those defenses should still be a centerpiece of any tight end streaming strategy, of course, but I’d like to look a little closer at the individual performances of the defenders primarily responsible for covering tight ends.
That would fall on safeties — who sometimes struggle to match the size and strength of tight ends — and linebackers, who often can’t keep up with deceptively fast tight ends with route-running chops.
Understanding how these defenders perform in coverage is key to finding solid matchups throughout the season. I turn to Pro Football Focus’ coverage grades for linebackers and safeties when I want an up-close view of just how good or bad a tight end matchup might be in the coming week.
Using this measurement is by no means foolproof; a solid understanding of how defenses deploy coverage against tight ends is critical to putting these numbers in context. I’m an unabashed numbers guy, as you know, but here’s a prime example of how watching the games — and comprehending what’s happening on the field — can be of some use.
I see the examination of these grades as a sort of drilling down into the performances of the guys charged with defending tight ends. And like any other statistical measurement, these grades tell us more with a greater sample size, meaning a bad overall coverage grade after two weeks doesn’t tell us nearly as much as a sub-par grade after 10 weeks.
Here are the details on how PFF issues player grades, which are based on the results of a play, not the technique that might lead to a good or bad result.
Let’s start with linebackers from the five defenses that gave up the most schedule-adjusted fantasy points to tight ends in 2013: the Cardinals, Jaguars, Vikings, Steelers, and Patriots.
|Team||Linebacker||PFF Coverage Rank/Grade|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Paul Posluszny||40/55 4.3|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Geno Hayes||7/35 6.8|
|Arizona Cardinals||Matt Shaughnessy||33/42 -1.8|
|Arizona Cardinals||John Abraham||6/42 2.8|
|Arizona Cardinals||Daryl Washington||5/55 8.8|
|Arizona Cardinals||Karlos Dansby||3/55 9.5|
|Minnesota Vikings||Erin Henderson||50/55 -8.0|
|Minnesota Vikings||Chad Greenway||35/35 -11.5|
|New England Patriots||Don’t’a Hightower||31/35 -5.6|
|New England Patriots||Brandon Spikes||38/55 -3.6|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Lamarr Woodley||9/42 1.8|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Jarvis Jones||41/42 -3.3|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Jason Worilds||21/42 -0.3|
- It’s clear to anyone with at least one functioning eyeball that the Vikings’ linebackers were horrid in coverage, with no exceptions. Greenway was the worst coverage linebacker in the NFL last year, and I think a glimpse at his attempt to guard running backs and tight ends would show you as much. Minnesota was alternately really good and really bad against opposing tight ends, allowing less than five fantasy points six times and getting nuked for more than 10 points seven times (standard scoring).
- Arizona’s linebackers fared well here, which prompts the question: how did the Cardinals give up more tight end production in 2013 than any team stretching back to 2008? One of the team’s best coverage linebacker, Washington, was intentionally not used in coverage despite a reputation for being a suffocating cover man. In that light, it’s not shocking that tight ends stomped on Arizona’s defense throughout 2013, scoring in double digits an astounding 10 times.
- New England’s linebackers weren’t horrendous my any means. A huge percentage of tight end production came from Tony Gonzalez in Week 4 and Jordan Cameron in Week 14. They accounted for 45 percent of tight end fantasy points scored against the Patriots. New England’s schedule-adjusted struggled against tight ends are a bit of mystery, as their secondary’s back end was anchored by the league’s top safety, per PFF.
|Team||Safety||PFF Coverage Rank/Grade|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||John Cyprien||86/86 -14.8|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Josh Evans||80/86 -7.9|
|Arizona Cardinals||Yeremiah Bell||31/86 1.5|
|Arizona Cardinals||Rashad Johnson||18/86 4.0|
|Minnesota Vikings||Jamarca Sanford||25/86 2.3|
|Minnesota Vikings||Andrew Sendejo||65/86 -3.9|
|Minnesota Vikings||Harrison Smith||72/86 -5.5|
|New England Patriots||Devin McCourty||1/86 14.1|
|New England Patriots||Steve Gregory||40/86 0.0|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Ryan Clark||34/86 0.6|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Troy Polamalu||2/86 13.9|
- It’s clear that when the abysmal PFF grades of the Vikings’ linebackers are added to the poor scores of their safeties, tight ends (and pass-catching running backs) are going to have their way. Sanford, according to Vikings beat writers, is better used as a special teams standout than an every-down safety.
- It’s a tad ironic to see both the No. 1 and No. 2 safety grades pop up in the chart above, with McCourty and Polamalu earning sky-high grades on defenses that struggled against the tight end. It seems that Polamalu, for one, wasn’t tasked with covering tight ends all that often. That left Pittsburgh’s linebackers to fend for themselves against guys like Rob Gronkowski and Charles Clay, both of whom eviscerated the Steelers’ defense.
- Take a look at those Jacksonville safety grades. Now turn away before your eyes melt out of your skull. I couldn’t find a worse grade than Cyprien’s in a fairly thorough search of PFF’s safety data, and Evans wasn’t much better. It became very clear by midseason that it was the team’s safeties — not their linebackers — who were making the Jaguars a weekly target for tight end streamers.