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The Redskins' Loose Coverage of Tight Ends

The Redskins have been one of the NFL's worst teams at defending tight ends since Jim Haslett and Mike Shanahan arrived in 2010. Are things finally starting to turn around, and what is the outlook for improvement going forward?

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Team Defense Against Tight Ends (or lack thereof):

The Redskins defense has experienced highs and lows during Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett's tenure in Washington. Unfortunately the lows have outnumbered the highs by a wide margin. There have been several problem areas on that side of the ball, but the biggest one may well be the inability to effectively defend against receiving tight ends. Since 2010, the Redskins have been arguably the worst team in the NFL at defending against opposing tight ends. During this time frame, the Redskins' defense has allowed the 4th most receptions, the 3rd most yards and the 2nd most touchdowns to tight ends. They are the only team in the NFL to rank in the bottom five of each of these categories. Only 4 other teams (Bills, Jaguars, Titans and Vikings) rank in the bottom five in 2 of these 3 categories.

Receptions, Yards and Touchdowns allowed to Tight Ends by the Redskins from 2010-Present
Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Totals 267 3,077 29
Rank 29th 30th 31st

Here are some more stats to help illustrate just how bad the Redskins have been at stopping tight ends over the last 52 games (or since week 1 of the 2010 season). All of these stats are in regard to every tight end on the opponent's team as a group and not as individual players.

  • A tight end has scored a touchdown in 26 of these games (50%).
  • Tight ends have caught at least 2 passes in each game.
  • The Redskins have only held tight ends to 2 receptions in 7 of these games (13%).
  • They have allowed 5 or more receptions to the tight ends in 26 of these games (50%).
  • There have only been 10 games (19%) in which the Redskins did not allow either 5 receptions, 50 yards or a touchdown to tight ends.
  • The Redskins have only stopped tight ends from achieving these numbers in 2 consecutive games on one occasion (weeks 11 and 12 of the 2011 season).
  • When opposing quarterbacks have targeted tight ends against the Redskins they have had a passer rating of 104.7.

There's simply no denying that the Redskins' defense has struggled mightily in this area. However, this year they have improved on their ranking for receptions, yards and touchdowns allowed to tight ends. Football Outsiders advanced metrics also seem to indicate that some progress has been made.

2010-2013 Redskins Yearly Statistics vs. Tight Ends and Coverage Metrics
Season TE Receptions Allowed (Rank) TE Yards Allowed (Rank) TE TDs Allowed (Rank) Passer Rating Allowed vs. TEs PFF Team Coverage Grade (Rank) FO Defense vs. TEs Ranking
2013 16 (t-8th) 201 (13th) 4 (t-27th) 122.1 -28.4 (32nd) 20th
2012 105 (32nd) 1,062 (32nd) 10 (30th) 113.7 -1.1 (17th) 28th
2011 75 (t-15th) 1,006 (28th) 9 (t-28th) 112.5 -18.7 (26th) 28th
2010 71 (t-19th) 808 (21st) 6 (t-14th) 79.9 -27.8 (30th) 5th

Does this mean that there's legitimate reason to be optimistic? Sorry, but I'm afraid not. The Redskins have allowed a touchdown to a tight end in every game this season, when throwing to tight ends this season opposing quarterbacks have had a passer rating of 122.1 (highest in Shanahan/Haslett era) and the team's overall Pro Football Focus pass coverage grade of -28.4 (worst in Shanahan/Haslett era) ranks dead last in the NFL. Possibly most disturbing, is the fact that the Redskins have yet to face off against many of the more elite passing catching tight ends that have given them so much trouble in the past. The closest thing that they've seen to a top-tier tight end this season is Jermichael Finley, and he lit them up to the tune of 6 receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown on just 7 targets. He did this all while playing on a bum toe and having to sit out for 40% of Green Bay's offensive snaps due to cramps.

The Redskins still have Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, Julius Thomas, Antonio Gates and Kyle Rudolph to look forward to this season. And that's just in the next 5 games! Throw in late season meetings against Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez and Witten again, and that brings us to a total of 8 matchups against this new breed of receiving tight ends in the last 12 weeks. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that those "improved rankings" are going to come crashing back down to earth in the very near future.

Individual Defense Against Tight Ends (or lack thereof):

Hopefully I've established that the Redskins are not a premiere team when it comes to tight end coverage. The question that comes to mind now is: why? One of my first thoughts was that it could be scheme or play calling related. But UK has already looked into this, and after reading his post it seems like they can't succeed no matter what play is called. Maybe we shouldn't be asking: why? Maybe the better question to ask is: who? So, let's take a look and see which players and positions have allowed all of those receptions, yards and touchdowns to tight ends over the past 3 years.

Breakdown of Receptions, Yards and Touchdowns Allowed to Tight Ends by Individual Redskins Players 2010-Present
TE Receptions Allowed (%) TE Yards Allowed (%) TE Touchdowns Allowed (%)
London Fletcher 58 (22.4%) 677 (22.5%) 5 (17.2%)
Rocky McIntosh 25 (9.7%) 258 (8.6%) 3 (10.3%)
Perry Riley 38 (14.7%) 386 (12.8%) 6 (20.7%)
Lorenzo Alexander 11 (4.2%) 68 (2.3%) 2 (6.9%)
Brian Orakpo 5 (1.9%) 25 (0.8%) 1 (3.4%)
Ryan Kerrigan 16 (6.2%) 168 (5.6%) 2 (6.9%)
Reed Doughty 12 (4.6%) 173 (5.8%) 1 (3.4%)
LaRon Landry 10 (3.9%) 103 (3.4%) 0 (0.0%)
DeJon Gomes 12 (4.6%) 218 (7.2%) 2 (6.9%)
Madieu Williams 6 (2.3%) 72 (2.4%) 0 (0.0%)
Carlos Rogers 7 (2.7%) 86 (2.9%) 1 (3.4%)
DeAngelo Hall 16 (6.2%) 219 (7.3%) 2 (6.9%)
Josh Wilson 10 (3.9%) 142 (4.7%) 2 (6.9%)
All Other Players 32 (12.4%) 408 (13.6%) 2 (6.9%)

Breakdown of Receptions, Yards and Touchdowns Allowed to Tight Ends by Redskins Position Groups 2010-Present
TE Receptions Allowed (%) TE Yards Allowed (%) TE Touchdowns Allowed (%)
Inside Linebackers 124 (47.9%) 1,345 (44.7%) 14 (48.3%)
Outside Linebackers 36 (13.9%) 287 (9.5%) 5 (17.2%)
Safeties 55 (21.2%) 797 (26.5%) 5 (17.2%)
Cornerbacks 43 (16.6%) 574 (19.1%) 5 (17.2%)
Defensive Lineman 1 (0.4%) 5 (0.2%) 0 (0.0%)

I think past is prologue more often than not, but for those of you only concerned with the present: here are the stats for just the 2013 season.

2013 Statistics for Individual Redskins in Tight End Coverage
Player TE Receptions Allowed TE Yards Allowed TE TDs Allowed Targets While Covering TEs Catch % Allowed While Covering TEs Overall PFF Coverage Grade
London Fletcher 2 19 1 4 50% -3.2
Perry Riley 1 7 0 5 20% -1.7
Nick Barnett 1 6 0 1 100% -1.3
Ryan Kerrigan 2 7 0 2 100% -1.1
Brian Orakpo 1 5 1 2 50% -0.1
Reed Doughty 2 33 0 3 66.6% -1.8
Brandon Merriwether 1 14 0 2 50% -2.9
Baccari Rambo 1 28 1 1 100% -3.8
Jordan Pugh 1 18 1 1 100% -0.4
Josh Wilson 1 28 0 2 50% -4.2
DeAngelo Hall 2 10 1 3 66.6% -3.9
E.J. Biggers 1 26 0 2 50% -2.1

If you were able to decipher that barrage of numbers, then it should be clear to you that tight ends have feasted on Redskin inside linebackers and safeties (namely Fletcher, Riley, McIntosh, Doughty and Gomes). These are the two most common position groups responsible for tight end coverage on most teams, so maybe it's the volume of coverage by these players and not the quality and efficiency of it. Sure, there is certainly a point there, but that point pretty much goes out the window when you consider that: A) the Redskins defense has ranked so badly in this phase compared to their peers and; B) the volume of tight end coverage by the Redskins as a team does not differ significantly from most teams in the league.

Also, I'll spare you another table and just simply tell you that the individual pass coverage grades for all of the aforementioned players have been consistently poor over the last 3 years. I'm no Jim Haslett apologist, but I do believe that our problem with tight end coverage has far more to do with the lack of adequate personnel than it does with poor game planning and play calling. The players that we've been using in this role have simply not gotten the job done.

The Solution:

The most obvious and simple fix to this problem would be to start using different players on the current roster to cover tight ends. Linebackers are responsible for the bulk of the job, so let's look there first. Nick Barnett is not a long-term solution, but he certainly has more spring in his step than the rapidly declining London Fletcher does. He has also received some very respectable coverage grades from Pro Football Focus over the past couple of seasons. Speaking of coverage grades, Rob Jackson led all 3-4 outside linebackers in coverage grade, passer rating against, yards/per coverage snap allowed and interceptions last year. When he returns from suspension, the Redskins would be wise to put those coverage skills to use by getting him on the field as either an outside or inside linebacker. Finally, if Keenan Robinson can stay healthy in 2014 and beyond, then his speed, size and youth could be just what the Redskins need to remedy this issue. Mark also recently pointed out some possible free agent and draft targets for next year that could help in this department.

Much like linebackers, Fletcher and Riley, cornerbacks, Hall and Wilson, have not fared well when matched up against tight ends. They simply don't have the size to effectively compete with them. Fortunately for the Redskins, they just added a corner with excellent size, length and speed in David Amerson. As far as I know, the team has yet to pit Amerson against a tight end; however, I think experimenting with this would certainly be worth the risk. He offers the best combination of size and speed out of all of corners on the team. If the Amerson v. tight end experiment turns out to be a failed one or one that never materializes, then they'll need to look elsewhere. Bigger is typically better when it comes to defending against tight ends, so 2014 free agents Aqib Talib and Chris Cook are certainly intriguing possibilities.

Tight ends like Graham, Gronkowski, Gates and Cameron are extremely difficult to cover. These players are 6'7'' 250 pound basketball-playing hybrid freaks. They are a new kind of player. So, in turn defenses need to find new kinds of player to defend them. Safeties are probably the best suited to be utilized in this role, but not just any run-of-the-mill safety will do. What is needed is a hybrid safety: one that can play center field, cover tight ends one-on-one and play as a linebacker, or "big nickel", on passing downs. This is the future of the position. The Redskins once had a player like that. His name was Sean Taylor. This article would simply not exist if he still did. Unfortunately, he's gone and I'm still typing, so another player will have to suffice. Perhaps, in-house option, Philip Thomas, will be up for the challenge when he comes off the shelf from his Lisfranc injury in 2014. At 6'1" 215 lbs. he certainly possesses the requisite size. The list of 2014 free agent safeties doesn't inspire much confidence as few, if any, of the players on it really fit the bill. There is however potential that draft prospects like Haha Clinton-Dix, Ed Reynolds or Dion Bailey could fill this role.

The Redskins' defense against tight ends has been downright pitiful over the last several years, and they need to start focusing on the solution now before this becomes an even greater problem. New players will likely need to be brought in to fully accomplish the turnaround; but there is reason to be hopeful as there are several already on the roster that may be able to help turn the tide.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN, Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Rotoworld.