Wednesday, January 15, 2014
A full spectrum of matchup trouble at TE
By Jeff Legwold
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox had just been asked about how teams all over the league seem intent on finding a guy like Julius Thomas these days.
“I think they're hard to find,'' Fox said. “It's kind of a unique position because you have to block and be a receiver -- and that is a unique, physical body to find, with that athleticism. It's like trying to find a center in the NBA. I mean, it's not easy to do.''
Fox could just as well been talking about why the position is so difficult to defend in today's NFL as much as he was about the difficulty in finding the guy to play it in the first place.
In Sunday's AFC Championship the full spectrum of the position will be on display in the two team's offenses. The guy who could do it all, the matchup nightmare of nightmares at the position, Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve for the Patriots, so he is not on the Broncos' defensive to-do list.
But in Thomas, the Broncos have the kind of pass catcher everyone covets at the position in this wide-open era. He is riding a breakout season that has included 65 receptions to go with 12 touchdowns as well as an invitation to the Pro Bowl. Thomas is too quick, too agile with too much top-end speed for most of the linebackers who have tried to shadow him this year. He's too strong, with too much reach, for most of the defensive backs who have taken their turn as well. And while his blocking remains a work in progress, when Peyton Manning throws you the ball on a third-and-17 late in the fourth quarter with a playoff game on the line you have arrived as a go-to guy in the pattern.
Even though the Patriots have a linebacker with athleticism in rookie Jamie Collins -- the former safety ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at last February's scouting combine at 250 pounds and his drop into the passing lane to snatch an Andrew Luck pass last weekend had the look of a cornerback in coverage -- New England's defensive staff will still face plenty of difficult choices in what to do with Thomas. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is willing to line up Thomas all over the formation, often forcing defenses to put bigger players in the open spaces where they are not nearly as comfortable.
But the Broncos will have their own problems with the position as well. While the Patriots' Michael Hoomanawanui had just one catch in last Saturday night's Patriots win over the Indianapolis Colts, he was no less a matchup problem for the Colts in that game. As the Patriots pounded out 234 yards rushing, it was Hoomanawanui who was often creating the crease on the outside edge, consistently allowing the Patriots to plow open holes as if they had six offensive linemen in the game.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is one of the game's most proficient practitioners of situational football. Belichick consistently creates the matchups on both sides of the ball that suit his team the best against a particular opponent and sticks to it.
To that end Belichick played Hoomanawanui on every offensive snap in the game -- 74 in all. Overall the Patriots used a two-tight end look for 34 plays in the game.
It means Broncos defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips will have to find a way to disengage from Hoomanawanui and hold the edge. Because if running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley are getting the corner down after down against the Broncos that will be every bit as disruptive as Thomas helping the Broncos to move the chains.