On an offensive unit sorely lacking in playmakers, Gary Barnidge’s 2015 production was a pleasant surprise for the Dawg Pound faithful. The eight-year pro emerged to become the offense’s most reliable receiving threat (79 receptions, nine touchdowns) in spite of a lackluster run attack and musical chairs at the quarterback position, earning a Pro Bowl selection in what is the twilight of many playing careers.
How can Browns’ fans expect to see Barnidge utilized this fall with new head coach/offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calling the plays? Will he maintain his position as the top red zone target for a team that struggles to score touchdowns? A film breakdown of Jackson’s utilization of Tyler Eifert during 2015 suggests fans should expect more of the same from Barnidge this upcoming season.
With ten years’ experience calling plays at the college and NFL level, Jackson has created an offensive scheme built on balance, creativity, and aggression. His offensive identify is rooted in the Air Coryell system of attacking the defense with a punishing ground game and vertical shots downfield. In addition, Jackson has integrated a variety of “college” concepts such as inside zone with reads, a variety of wide receiver screens, and run-pass options (known in coaching parlance as RPOs) during his two seasons as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator.
A hallmark of Jackson’s time in Cincinnati is his ability to leverage his player’s strengths to create personnel mismatches in the run and pass game. The main recipient of Jackson’s ability to adapt scheme with talent was tight end Tyler Eifert, who (like Barnidge) developed into a top-five NFL tight end during the 2015 season. While the new play callers’ offense did not run through the tight end between the 20’s, Jackson heavily relied on the Notre Dame product’s ability to create personnel mismatches via formation and motion in the red zone during the 2015 season.
While not exact replicas (Eifert is a much better blocker at the line of scrimmage), Eifert and Barnidge share many physical and technical characteristics that make life tough on defenders. Both are tall, strong, possess wide frames, have good game speed, and run solid routes. Their versatility makes them matchup nightmares for defensive backs and linebackers, particularly inside the space-compressing 20-yard line, where physicality in coverage is at a premium.
If a defense elects to cover an Eifert/Barnidge-caliber-player with a linebacker, they will use route running ability and speed to win the route. Elect to cover them with a faster defensive back, they will use superior size, strength, and frame to beat up the defender. This versatility keeps defensive coordinators up late at night trying to scheme ways to minimize the resulting damage inside the 20-yard line.
Examples of Jackson and former Browns’ offensive coordinator John Defilippo utilizing the pair's strengths like route running technique and power, along with motion and alignment show up over and over on film. Let's go to the tape to compare how both were utilized in the red zone pass game.
Take a look around the NFL and you will see smart coaches isolating their pass-catching tight ends on defensive backs by removing them from the core of the offensive formation. A popular way of doing this is by aligning them to the backside (away from the strength of the formation) of 3X1 formations (Three receivers aligned to one side of the field with a single receiver aligned to the opposite; also known as “Trips”) or on the outside of 2X2 formations ( “Quads”).
Three and four receiver formations create space for the pass catcher to work in, particularly when the ball is spotted outside the 10-yard line. This puts extra pressure on the defensive back, as he must now guard more of the route tree as the distance to the end zone won’t limit the offense to short, 3-step routes. Let’s look at how Eifert and Barnidge are employed in space to put the ball in the end zone using their solid route running abilities.
Eifert is aligned as a ‘Z’ receiver almost two yards off the line of scrimmage. Because he cannot guarantee an opportunity to jam due to the extra room Eifert has to release, Browns cornerback Tramon Williams elects to play a variation of a flat-foot read technique.
Basic flat-foot and penny-step read technique requires the defensive back to align at a depth of 7-8 yards. At the snap, the defender will stand still or take slow steps backwards, alternating his eyes between the receiver and quarterback. If the receiver stems into a 3-step route like a slant or hitch (will break at 5-7 yards), the defensive back will be in position to break on the ball in front of him. If the wide receiver runs through the short-game area, the defender will turn and continue to play man coverage.
Eifert toasts Williams with a beautiful slant-n-go, or ‘sluggo’ route, a common double-move used to pick on over-aggressive secondary players.
Watch how Eifert breaks inside on his third step to sell the slant, then immediately pushes off his inside foot to press back upfield. You can see Willliams reading the quarterback, who does a great job selling the slant as well with a pump fake. The route stem and pump fake force the veteran cornerback to break on what he thinks is a short route, opening up the vertical downfield.
Barnidge is aligned to the backside of the aforementioned 3X1 formation, isolated against a single defender. The defense is in a Cover 1 or ‘Man-Hi’ shell, with a single deep safety playing the middle of the field (known as MOFC, or Middle Of the Field Closed). Barnidge’s defender can’t count on deep help here as the safety must also account for the three receivers to the strongside of the formation.
Notice Barnidge’s tight split to the core of the offense’s formation, known as a ‘Nasty’ split. This split is often keys an inside-breaking crossing route across the middle of the field or an outside-breaking corner/fade route.
While Barnidge’s route may look basic at first glance, the subtleties of his stems are outstanding. He starts by releasing outside, before pressing straight upfield to avoid the cornerback. At ten yards he stems to the corner at a good 45 degree angle and gets his head around for the ball. The linebacker tasked with covering the talented tight end has no chance of catching up due to the speed and angle of the route.
Inside the ten-yard line isolation routes is very limited as the receiver does not have room to run intermediate routes like the dig or vertical routes like the post. Generally the backside receiver will run one of two routes due to space constrictions created by the back of the end zone:
- An inside-breaking slant
- An outside-breaking flat/fade.
Both routes allow the pass-catcher to use his natural size, strength, and width to muscle defenders that press at the line of scrimmage, and box them out once the ball is in the air. Because the offensive player is aligned to the backside of the formation, the defender must play true man coverage with no help from a safety.
Again, Jackson and DeFilippo effectively used their tight end’s physical strength to create touchdowns throughout the 2015 season.
Eifert is aligned to the inside of a 2X2 formation, matched up against a slot defensive back. Like the previous example, because he is aligned almost two yards behind the line of scrimmage, the defender will have issues jamming him. If the third-year tight end tries to run through the seam, the defender must use his body to reroute. He cannot allow a free release here, as the tight end will use his height and length advantage to go get the ball
The defensive back attempts to reroute the tight end, although Eifert easily runs through the jam. The slot defender is simply out-muscled here. The jam attempt forces the defender to chase, allowing Eifert to go up and get the ball over his shoulder.
The cornerback is aligned over Barnidge in a press position, looking to disrupt the route at the line of scrimmage. The basic technique of press coverage is inside alignment by the defender (the defender’s outside foot aligned over the offensive player’s inside foot), a hard punch at the line of scrimmage, and a flip of the hips as the players cross the goal line.
As you will see below, jamming the modern-day NFL tight end looks great on the grease board; the reality is the technique is very difficult to execute in game conditions against a tall, strong player with technique.
Hand strength is the key to winning this route. Watch how Barnidge uses a club-swim technique to easily bat aside the cornerback’s jam attempt, creating instant separation
Finally, both Jackson and DeFillipo often used motion and alignment to create positive matchups for their gifted big men.
Jackson initially shows a heavy look with multiple tight ends and running backs, before flexing Eifert out from his traditional in-line position. This motion forces the Bills’ cornerback to widen, resulting in man-coverage with no help. The defensive back has his work cut out for him here. To have a chance he must cheat the slant and react to the fade/flat route.
The defender makes a mistake by not attempting to jam the first-year Pro Bowler at the line of scrimmage. He must attempt to disrupt the route even in the face of Eifert’s size and strength advantage, although the back shoulder throw is practically indefensible in this situation.
Like the Bengals in the previous film clip, the Browns are showing a heavy formation with multiple tight ends and running backs. Barnidge is originally lined-up in a wing position before motioning across the formation and turning to get a running start to the flat.
Barnidge moves very well for a big man, taking advantage of his running start to beat the defender to the goal line. A simple flat route from the wing position would likely be covered here, necessitating the release with motion.
New scheme. New coaches. Same old story for the Browns’ organization, players, and fans.
There will be growing pains associated with installing new concepts, formations, and techniques, but Browns’ fans should be confident in their new head coach's ability to create mismatches and put the ball in the hands of his playmakers. The tape strongly suggests that Barnidge will continue to be placed in plus matchups to take advantage of his physical and technical skills, as Jackson has already demonstrated his willingness to attack the defense with an elite tight end.