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Do you need a good TE to make the playoffs?

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The TE has become the focal point of modern offensive football. If a team isn’t strong at that position, can they win in today’s game?

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

College football has now selected four years worth of playoffs and chose three (soon to be four) champions. We’ve seen a variety of different teams with different styles competing in them every year, and also Alabama, but there’s been one consistent trait to every team, they’ve all made extensive use of a tight end.

There have been a few different types of tight end we’ve seen in the playoffs but teams with scrubs at the position don’t reach that level and teams without great TE play don’t typically beat the teams that do enjoy it.

Here are the TEs we’ve seen in the playoffs so far:

Playoff tight ends

Team TE Resume NFL?
Team TE Resume NFL?
Ohio State (2014) Jeff Heuerman 2nd team All-B1G 3rd round pick
Oregon (2014) Evan Baylis 4-star recruit Undrafted free agent
Alabama (2014) OJ Howard 260 receiving yards 1st round pick
Florida State (2014) Nick O'Leary All-American 6th round pick
Alabama (2015) OJ Howard 602 receiving yards 1st round pick
Clemson (2015) Jordan Leggett Mackey Award finalist 5th round pick
Oklahoma (2015) Mark Andrews 7 TD catches ?
Michigan State (2015) Josiah Price 3rd team All-B1G Undrafted free agent
Clemson (2016) Jordan Leggett 736 receiving yards 5th round pick
Alabama (2016) OJ Howard 595 receiving yards 1st round pick
Washington (2016) Darrell Daniels All-P12 honorable mention Undrafted free agent
Ohio State (2016) Marcus Baugh All-B1G honorable mention ?
Georgia (2017) Jeb Blazevich/Isaac Nauta Two 1k-yard RBs ?
Alabama (2017) Hale Hentges/Irv Smith, Jr 6 TD catches ?
Oklahoma (2017) Mark Andrews All-American ?
Clemson (2017) Milan Richard All-B1G honorable mention ?

Every team to participate in the playoffs has had a good or great TE that played a pretty important role in the offense. The champion has always been a team with particularly good TEs. Jeff Heuerman didn’t pile up stats at Ohio State but there was a reason he went in the third round, O.J. Howard and Jordan Leggett dominated the next two playoffs, and both Alabama and Georgia make pretty extensive use of deep stables of TEs this season.

Alabama rotates young Irv Smith, Jr who’s a solid receiving target on a team that doesn’t throw much, with Hale Hentges out there and they are instrumental to the Bama run schemes. Georgia similarly asks a lot of Jeb Blazevich and back-ups Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner in their own run game. Next year watch out for them to unleash these guys with Fromm in the passing game after Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel move on. Neither of these teams have a featured TE right now that is turning heads in a major way but both of them actually rely extensively on deep TE rosters to execute their strategies.

Pro-style vs college-style

Every team uses outside receivers for the same purpose, to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. Everyone uses five OL who specialize in blocking, one RB who specializes in running the ball, and then most everyone uses at least one slot receiver to help free up the outside receiver or expand the number of good targets stretching the field vertically and horizontally. As a result, the modern defense is a base nickel with two cornerbacks, three movable support DBs, and then six players in the box. The point of demarcation between styles is really inside at the TE position where the offense looks to attack the personnel choices of the defense.

In the recent past I delineated offenses into two main campings, “pro-style” and “college-style.” College-style offenses use the TE to boost the run game and handle the sixth box player by blocking him. The rest of the offense is built off that premise. So in this sense, the Alabama, Ohio State, and Oregon teams were all “college-style” offenses because their TEs focused primarily on allowing them to account for the sixth defender in the box in a variety of fashions. The passing game is an instrument that comes into effect on passing downs or when the defense is adding an extra man up front.

Pro-style offenses use the TE to attack the sixth box defender’s ability to play pass coverage. Florida State, Clemson, even Michigan State tended to operate in that fashion. All of those teams were ostensibly run-first squads but when push came to shove, Florida State was asking Jameis Winston to carry them, Clemson was relying on four/five WR formations with Jordan Leggett flexed out for Deshaun Watson, and Michigan State was going empty and asking Connor Cook to bail them out of passing downs with Josiah Price flexed out.

Oklahoma found a unique balance by playing a more “college-style” player in FB Dmitri Flowers while using flex TE Mark Andrews in the slot. If they'd made better use of Andrews in the passing game against Georgia they might have won that game and perhaps the national championship.

College-style is the more popular route because it’s easier to be consistently good at running the football than throwing it given how much chemistry, experience, and overall skill is required to do the latter at a championship level. However, pro-style is the preferred method in the pros for a reason, it’s harder to stop. Teams recruit players that can stop the run against a “college-style” set but very few teams have good answers when the TE can run option routes in the middle of the field at a high level.

So how good do you need to be?

Good enough to require an extra man from the defense to stop them. This is easier for a blocking TE than a receiver, for all of the reasons mentioned above. It’s just easier to block a guy that’s trying to discern where to be in the run fit than to get open in the right spot at the right time and then also successfully receive a ball from the QB.

Today’s blocking TE typically lines up off the ball and serves to create a gap problem for a spread out defense. Both Alabama and Georgia like to run zone and gap schemes where the ball can hit a few different points in the line of scrimmage based on how well the defense reacts to the insertion of a lead block by the moving TE.

The best blocking TEs can execute a variety of blocks on multiple members of the front six. Weak zone asks him to base block a DE and help the tackle release up to a linebacker, power asks him to kick the DE out, split zone and counter have him trap an unblocked DE, and “wham” has him do the same to an unblocked DT, “Iso” has him lead up to a linebacker. The more blocks that he can consistently execute the easier it is for the offense to isolate weak spots in a defensive front and loose the RB.

If he can execute enough of these blocks well then the defense is forced to drop a DB down closer to the action to account for the extra gap. Now the offense can start working on the 1-on-1s outside with their speedy receivers on play-action and RPOs. Georgia takes this one step further with double TE sets that require “two” extra men from a nickel defense. The benefit here is that they can either make the defense’s second best run support defender have to be prominently involved OR they can force the defense to sub in a back-up linebacker and play a base defensive front that doesn’t get their best 11 on the field.

A receiving TE needs to excel in a few main routes to force help from the “extra man.” The “stick” option route and the whip route to beat a linebacker who’s aligned inside of him, the dig over the middle and the deeper cross to punish safeties, and then the vertical up the seam. If he can make himself a nuisance presenting a big target over the middle on these routes then the defense is forced to start sending help on the linebackers across from him with safety help over the top (on the seam routes) AND/OR help from an outside LB, nickel, or CB outside of him (on the whip/stick routes).

For guys like Mark Andrews there just aren’t college defenders that can really deal with their size and skill. They’re too big for DBs and too close to the QB for an effective box out and quick, well-timed throw to be stopped by just one defender. The rare college defenders who do have the size and speed to match up don’t really spend much time learning the nuances of covering these guys because it just doesn’t come up often enough. The inevitable response from a defense is to bring the bracket coverage, freeing up the speedy receivers outside with 1-on-1 matchups.

This can be accomplished with a WR but inevitably the offense will face a team that matches up in dime and eliminates the matchup advantage or need for help.

In the NFL (sometimes in college) these TEs will also be flexed out in WR alignments to achieve similar matchup conundrums. Just getting a TE up to snuff on middle of the field routes and making it a major part of the offense is pretty time-intensive for college teams so they don’t tend to get to these higher levels of complex, matchup ball. Maxx Williams of Minnesota spent a fair amount of time out wide though, as did South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert.

The college game revolves around these guys and what their play dictates for the defense in terms of personnel choices and allocation of help. No wonder the teams in the playoffs tend to excel here.