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Pressures, Hurries, and the Underutilization of Arizona Tight Ends

D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie have been the target's of much criticism so far in Arizona's 4-3 start, mostly due to their sieve-like performances in pass protection. A lot of this criticism is rightly deserved, as the two starting offensive tackles for Arizona have given up more sacks themselves than every other team in the NFL, save Green Bay. However, some of the blame should fall on the coaching staff, not for not replacing them, but rather for giving them very limited help from the Tight Ends.

Jeff King is not the hero Batiste and Massie deserve, but the one they need right now. A silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.
Jeff King is not the hero Batiste and Massie deserve, but the one they need right now. A silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.
Christian Petersen

After painfully watching both Kevin Kolb and John Skelton get abused at a near record rate, Cardinal's fans have been searching for a way to fix the offensive line. Many have suggested exploring external options, such as potential trade targets or free agent signings. Others have offered the idea of replacing current starters with some of the untested linemen on the current roster, such as Senio Kelemete and Nate Potter. Some have jokingly suggested bringing in Jamarcus Russel, as he is likely currently in the right weight category to play any position on the offensive line.

Instead, I offer a novel suggestion: how about the Cardinals actually start using their tight ends in pass protection? As we are all well aware, the Arizona Cardinals offensive line is easily the worst pass blocking unit in the NFL. As a unit, the Cardinals OL has given up a staggering 34 sacks, going along with 103 (!) QB pressures. Compare that to a good offensive line, such as the one in Denver that convinced Peyton Manning to sign: 9 sacks, 27 QB pressures. And now for comparison to a slightly above average pass blocking OL, such as San Francisco's: 13 sacks, 41 pressures.

Now, we know that Arizona's offensive tackles are pretty bad, and this post is not going to try an dispute the fact that they are playing like the worst OTs in the league, however, let's look a little deeper at how the tight end position is used by each of these three offensive lines.

In Denver, the offensive tackle combination of Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin have given up a mere two sacks, and 16 total pressures on 240 and 238 passing snaps respectively. Pretty darn good numbers, the type of production that Cardinal's fans can only dream of. Now lets look at how the Denver tight ends are used in pass protection. Jacob Tamme is on the field for 153 of Denver's 240 pass plays, roughly 63%, and of those 153 passing snaps, he stays home to block on 24 of those, 15.7% of his passing snaps. Joel Dreessen has been on the field for 158 passing snaps, 65.8% of Denver's passing snaps, and has set up in pass pro on 46 of those snaps, 29.1% of Dreessen's pass plays. Combined, in pass protection, the Denver tight end combo has allowed only 1 hurry in all 70 of those collective snaps.

Now to look at San Francisco, who feature Anthony Davis and Joe Staley on their offensive line. Davis and Staley, on 234 and 212 passing snaps each, have combined to give up 8 sacks, and 32 total pressures. Star receiving tight end Vernon Davis has seen the field on 227 passing snaps, and he hung back in pass protection on 24 of those snaps, 10.6% of his passing snaps. Delanie Walker has played 113 passing plays, and pass blocked on 14 of those, 12.4%, while Garrett Celek and Demarcus Dobbs have been on the field for 10 and 1 pass play each, 3 and 1 of those being a pass protection assignment, or the easy percentage calculation of 30% and 100% each. Total pressure given up by the San Fran tight end group: 1 QB hurry.

Finally we'll take a look at Arizona, starting with the cringe inducing stats of Bobbie Massie and D'Anthony Batiste. Like a band-aid, we'll rip this off quickly. 300(!) passing plays for each, 22 sacks allowed, 91 total pressures allowed. Yikes. Rob Housler has seen the most playing time out of our tight ends, getting 160 passing plays of the 300 total Arizona passing plays, 53.3%. However, Housler has only stayed back to block on seven of those snaps, or 4.4% of his passing plays.

Ok, so what, Housler is a pure receiving tight end anyways, let's take a look at our pure blocking tight end, Jeff King. King has seen the field for 81 pass plays, 27% of Arizona's passing snaps, and has stayed home to block on only 17 occasions, or 21% of his passing snaps, down from 36.6% in 2012. Its a better number, but King is a blocking tight end, and should be staying home much more than that, especially considering how bad the Cardinal's tackles have been. Todd Heap's numbers before injury may be even more surprising, as on his 46 snaps on pass plays, he only stayed back for 3 to pass block, 6.5%. Mike Leach also was in for 1 snap as a pass blocking tight end. In total, Arizona tight-ends have also given up only 1 pressure, a QB sack.

A distinct pattern in beginning to emerge, the more a team uses its tight ends in pass protection, the less sacks and pressures they're tackles and tight ends will collectively give up. Double teams are an absolute must when facing most of the NFL's outside pass rushers, and just looking at the numbers, it seems Arizona is content to run their offense leaving each tackle as the sole protector against team's most dangerous pass rushers.

Of these three team's Arizona has ran the most passing plays, 300, and utilized the least amount of tight end pass protection, 28, for an unacceptable percentage of only 9.3% of passing plays. San Francisco has played 234 passing snaps and used their tight ends to block on 42 of those plays, 17.9%. Finally, the best tackle combo of the three, Denver, has 240 passing snaps, leaving tight ends to block on 70 of those, 29.2%.

Will leaving Jeff King and Rob Housler back in pass protection on a few more plays instantly fix what woes the Cardinal's offensive line? Probably not, but it will certainly help out this much maligned unit. And it is inexcusable for Whisenhunt and Miller to expect Batiste and Massie to succeed when they are given so little help. With the group of wide receivers Arizona possess, the quarterbacks don't need more options running around the field to have players open, they just need more time in the pocket to let the routes develop.