Time to Upgrade: Why Acquiring a TE Could Take Adam Gase’s Offense to the Next Level
The tight-end position was far from a disappointment for the Dolphins in 2016. Most had little, if any, hope for Jordan Cameron, and the USC product continued his path towards being remembered as a “what if” player. Cameron’s health continues to keep him off the gridiron.
While Cameron didn’t produce, the Dolphins were surely pleased to see so many other players step up in his place. If you combine the statistics of Dion Sims, MarQueis Gray and Dominique Jones, you’d end up with 48 receptions for 491 yards and 5 TDs (with 27 catches, 4 TDs and 256 yards coming from Dion Sims).
The committee approach worked at the position; much like the tactic some teams take a RB, Miami was able to combine enough players to reach a point where they had a somewhat effective rotation at tight end. Adam Gase also compensated for the lack of playmakers at tight end by emphasizing the WR’s on the roster, which Miami has an abundance of.
The dearth of talent at tight end didn’t hurt the Dolphins in 2016. However, if the team wants to fully capitalize on the offensive genius of head coach Adam Gase, they would be best served by acquiring some play makers who can exploit matchups against smaller cornerbacks and slower linebackers.
In Gase’s past coaching stops, he has developed talented players at tight end. In his first season as the OC in Denver, he was able to turn Julius Thomas from a player with one career reception into a 65-catch, 788-yard, and 12-touchdown offensive weapon. In Chicago, Gase helped develop Zach Miller. Miller went from four catches for 42 yards to 34 catches for 439 yards and five TDs in 2015.
The focus of this article isn’t to examine how Adam Gase will acquire a tight end; obviously, the Dolphins could find a viable option either in the draft or through free agency. This article takes the approach of examining how Adam Gase utilizes the tight end in his offense and why the acquisition of a solid option at the position could take his offense to the next level.
Currently, Miami’s offense can send Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams or DeVante Parker downfield and create the legitimate threat of a completion. So, what would adding another option (that sides closer to Landry than Ajayi in terms of likelihood to be targeted) do for the offense?
On the play above, the running back underneath holds the safety. Barry Church is caught between a rock and a hard place; does he try to make the tackle short of the sticks underneath, or does he rely on his other safety over the top to pick up Julius Thomas? Unfortunately for Church, he chooses neither; he hesitates, leaving an easy option up the seam for Thomas.
These seam routes are used with great frequency by teams with strong options at tight end, and they have a high success rate because of the difficult decisions they force safeties and linebackers to make.
Here’s another example of a running back holding players over the middle:
Julius Thomas breaks out wide enough on his route to make sure that he has a cornerback covering him with a poor angle. At the same time, the fake handoff followed by an underneath route keeps the two linebackers engaged over the middle.
By the time they realize they’ve been fooled, it’s too late. Thomas uses his size to guarantee body position over the defensive back (with a smaller WR, that pass could be intercepted) and bounces off tacklers into the end zone.
Here’s another example of route combinations freeing up a tight end due to mismatches:
Gase’s call here sends a receiver deep on a post, which keeps the safety over the top in the middle. Underneath the defender, Julius Thomas is running a crossing route; he gradually separates due to the linebacker’s lesser speed. With good protection, it’s just a waiting game.
The play above was a perfect example of recognizing a mismatch and simply waiting for the target to gain enough separation from a slower LB. Later in the same game, Manning went back to the well.
Déjà vu: The Colts leave Thomas with a linebacker, and Manning simply has to wait for separation before exploiting the mismatch.
For a quarterback like Ryan Tannehill, who doesn’t possess an elite ability to process the entire field quickly, reads like this with tight ends would be a huge help. If there’s a linebacker in coverage, he knows the second the matchup is identified that he’ll be able to find that TE if protection holds for enough time.
In addition to supplementing Tannehill’s processing, adding a tight end could help exploit the presence of not only a dynamic rushing attack, but also the fact that Miami has a highly mobile QB.
On 2nd & 7, the Bears appear to be lining up for a rushing play. Given the situation, it would make sense; an incompletion would set up a dangerous 3rd & long. However, the play fake is executed perfectly thanks to the presence of two TEs.
Keeping both tight ends lined up on the strong side of a running play helped sell the play call even more. Then, Jay Cutler pulls the ball back for the bootleg. Cutler finds the tight end matched up with a slower, smaller defender who can’t slow down such a large pass-catching target.
With Ryan Tannehill, this play could be even more effective; Tannehill is a far superior QB to Cutler on the run (and in most situations, but that’s neither here nor there).
In addition to expanding Miami’s use of Tannehill’s abilities, adding another tight end could make current elements of their playbook much more effective.
The Dolphins already utilize the same play that Gase ran in Chicago above. However, with a faster TE, there is a chance for greater yards after the catch.
The aforementioned physical ability of tight ends is also incredibly important to Gase’s seam. Some of his best play designs utilized TE’s with speed to capitalize on soft spots in the defense. Having those matchup nightmares allows Gase to torment defensive coordinators with his play design.
On the play above, Adam Gase sets up an elaborate fake. Zach Miller fakes a route outside in the flat, while Alshon Jeffrey appears to be setting up for a screen. Once Cutler has the TE one-on-one with a linebacker, he fires the ball out while Jeffrey sets up to block inside. The fake sets the defense up with poor angles, and Jeffrey seals the lane with a block inside.
It will also be important for Ryan Tannehill to understand, if Miami can acquire a more dynamic TE, that his responsibilities when distributing the ball to that position will change.
On the play above, Gase sends Julius Thomas up the seam over the middle of the field. This play design would work well in Miami; Welker and Decker (two viable options, much like Landry and Parker) hold the defense underneath while Thomas motors up the seam.
The soft spot in the zone, between the inside linebacker and the safety, comes open when Thomas reaches the second level. If a TE with speed is implemented, Ryan Tannehill will need to wait until different areas of the field open before utilizing his ability to zip the ball into tight windows (which we know he has).
Having a tight end can also help exploit teams that send extra pressure on the blitz.
Not only does Julius Thomas get separation from the safety, but he’s also such a large target that it’s easy for the QB to have peace of mind knowing that their chance of an interception is lower than it would be targeting a WR in that situation.
Ryan Tannehill has repeatedly shown the ability to make good throws under pressure, waiting in the pocket and delivering accurately when smacked by a blitzing LB or DB. If the Dolphins can acquire a TE, it would further Tannehill’s ability to make plays against defenses who leave their secondaries vulnerable by sending extra men after the QB.
With a solid receiving corps already in place, Adam Gase could benefit from the extra opportunities to get creative offensively that you’re afforded upon acquiring a dangerous TE. If you want to watch him show off that creativity…
Gase was just toying with the defense at that point.
It should be mentioned that the Dolphins have a laundry list of needs heading into the offseason. Virtually every position on the defense needs help, and multiple offensive players will be looking for extensions. With a packed agenda for the front office, it’s possible that tight ends falls to the wayside.
Even if it does, it won’t be the end of the world. I don’t believe that lacking another tight end would cost the Dolphins any wins in 2017. The team can get by with the committee they used last season and will probably be able to lock up Dion Sims on a reasonable contract.
However, if the Dolphins want to achieve their fullest potential, it won’t be because of defense. Adam Gase is universally-regarded as an offensive guru. For the Dolphins to have success at the highest level, they’ll need to give Adam Gase everything he can to get Miami’s offense firing on all cylinders.