The tight end throwback might be the best play in football. When it works to design, it’s beautiful and leaves a player with half the field to himself. Rarely, if ever, does it not work like it’s drawn up.
Last year, the Carolina Panthers ran what might have been the least effective tight end throwback in recent history and the play still picked up the three yards needed for a first down.
The Panthers used that play in Week in 6 against the New Orleans Saints after having it run on them to perfection by the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. The play is a staple of then-offensive coordinator and now San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is the best offensive mind in creating opportunities for tight ends. Against the Panthers, they ran the play to Austin Hooper for a 42-yard score.
That’s what the New York Giants were dealing with against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on O.J. Howard’s 58-yard touchdown in the first quarter. The key to the play is the run sell and that’s easier to do with a heavy personnel grouping.
Tampa Bay had a 1st-and-10 on its own 42 and brought out 13 personnel -- one running back, three tight ends, and one wide receiver. Last year the Buccaneers used 13 personnel on eight percent of their offensive plays, which was the third-highest rate in the league per Sharp Football Stats. In that personnel, they ran the ball 76 percent of the time, which was above the already high league average of 70 percent from that player grouping. Only 22 personnel -- two running backs and two tight ends -- featured a higher league-wide run rate at 85 percent among groupings used at least three percent of the time.
Everything about the play from the down and distance to the personnel to the formation suggested a run. That caused the Giants to take Eli Apple off the field and go with Devon Kennard as a third linebacker. On the previous play, the Buccaneers were in 11 personnel -- three wide receivers -- and the Giants countered with a nickel defense featuring five defensive backs. But when the offense shows this personnel and formation, it’s hard not to go heavier, too. Howard (80) is circled.
The Buccaneers haven’t been a particularly heavy play-action team this season. Through the first three weeks, they ran play-action on 18 percent of their passes, which was the 16th-highest rate, per Football Outsiders charting. They were also averaging just 6.1 yards per pass on those plays, which ranked 24th. Though in 2016, Tampa Bay ran play-action on 22 percent of its passes, which was the sixth-highest rate in the league.
Rookie Chris Godwin (12) was the lone wide receiver on the field for the Buccaneers and before the snap, he motioned from the right side of the formation to the left. If run wasn’t already the thought, having one receiver on the field and it not being either Mike Evans or DeSean Jackson cements it.
Janoris Jenkins followed Godwin across the formation, which allowed three defenders on the other side -- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jonathan Casillas, and B.J. Goodson -- to creep closer to the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, the Buccaneers run play-action to the wide receiver side. The Giants clearly expected a run, so everyone bites. Howard, again, is circled.
As Jameis Winston pulled the ball away from his running back and ran a bootleg back to his right, the Buccaneers initially sent two players out in routes -- Godwin and tight end Cameron Brate (84). The purpose of those routes was to draw the back end of the defense across the field towards the bootleg. It worked.
The two crossing routes draw the focus of Jenkins, Andrew Adams, Landon Collins, Casillas, and Goodson. That’s five defenders drawn by two routes while Howard has not yet gotten two yards past the line of scrimmage.
With the field shifted back towards Winston’s bootleg and the two receivers, Howard had a free release to turn up the field.
Between the initial play-action to the left which carried the defensive line and Winston’s bootleg back to his right, there’s no pressure on the quarterback. Winston has as much time as he needs to set his feet and rip the ball back across the field to his wide open tight end.
When the pass in finally completed, Howard has just about half the field to himself. The closest defender to him is five yards back, but just over the hash marks, while the only defender with the correct angle for cutting him off is eight yards down the field and past the opposite hash. There’s no way that gap can be closed within the 35 yards Howard needed to run.
Here’s the play in full:
The touchdown put the Giants in an early 13-0 hole. While the Giants continue to struggle against tight ends, it’s hard to fault the defense for this one. If the tight end throwback isn’t undefeated in its success, it’s pretty close. Those tight end problems were more apparent on Cameron Brate’s 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Through four weeks, the Giants allowed the second-most targets (38), second-most receptions (29), second-most yards (309), and most touchdowns (5) to opposing tight ends.
Instead of getting down on why this particular play wasn’t defended, the Giants should learn from the Panthers who got beat by it the stole it and used it later in the season. The Giants might not have much to play for by that point, but Evan Engram with a wide open half of the field would be something many Giants fans would like to see.