If you were asked to guess the name of the #1 tight end according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics in 2009, it's quite possible that you'd go a while before getting the answer. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down every single play of the NFL season to see how much success offensive players achieve in each specific situation compared to the league average in that situation, adjusted for the strength of the opponent. In short, it's a determination of how well a player does against league average, measured as a percentage above or below the league average baseline. And in 2009, no tight end had a better DVOA (49.3%) than former Patriots and current Browns tight end Ben Watson.
Questions will immediately arise whenever a player who excelled in New England's offense goes elsewhere – the figurative NFL highway is littered with the bones of ex-Pats looking to cash in elsewhere, who instead find out the hard way that having Tom Brady as your quarterback just might make a slight difference. For a Browns team in which Josh Cribbs may have been the best quarterback AND the best receiver at times, how can Watson do so well in his new environment? After all, the Pats are a heavy shotgun team with dominant deep and slot receivers, leaving single coverage on backs and tight ends to a disproportionate degree.
In the Patriots' Monday Night season opener against the Buffalo Bills, Watson caught six passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets from Tom Brady. I thought it would be instructive to go back and see how Watson did it, and what was going on around him.
On his first catch, which came with 1:55 left in the first half, Watson lined up as the right-side H-back as the Pats went with a three-wide shotgun formation against the Bills' 2-man (man under, 2-deep) defense. Linebacker Kawika Mitchell rolled right to cover halfback Kevin Faulk's wheel route, and Watson caught the pass in a zone hole up the seam. Two plays later, Watson took a quick up from Brady as the receivers spread the defense out. On those two plays, Watson's status as an open receiver was definitely a product of the system – the Bills' zone/man hybrids had too much to cover.
The first of two touchdowns to Watson came with 2:10 left in the game. On second-and-3 from the Buffalo 18, the Pats went with a similar three-wide shotgun set, but with Watson (84) aligned closer in. The Bills went with a 4-2 nickel, sending Mitchell hard to playside as Faulk came out of the backfield and to help with Randy Moss, who ran an in route to draw shorter coverage. Linebacker Keith Ellison followed Watson up the middle as he ran a post, but he couldn't match up downfield, and Watson beat both safeties for the touchdown. The reason he was able to do so was that both safeties were giving initial looks outside to the three receivers. Would he have had that opportunity in a less dynamic passing game against a nickel Tampa-2 with linebackers that can cover? My magic 8-ball says, "Perhaps not". Few teams are better at spreading defenses out and forcing unfavorable matchups than New England. This was a good example of how to foil what was basically a dime defense if you count Ellison as a DB for schematic purposes.
Watson's second touchdown, the one that sealed New England's 25-24 win, came with 55 seconds left in the game, and the Pats with first-and-10 at the Buffalo 16. Formation-wise, this was a virtual replay of the earlier touchdown – the Pats in three-wide, single-back shotgun, and the Bills in Tampa-2 nickel. The only differences were that the corners played a little tighter up, and Ellison got back to follow Watson a bit more quickly, forcing Brady to throw to a spot in the end zone about two yards to Watson's right. Watson was able to adjust and make the play. This was the one example where I'd say that the Bills had New England defended pretty well, and Watson's playmaking ability proved to be the difference.
Can Watson do that in Cleveland? Mike Holmgren has always had interesting thoughts on using tight ends (something we'll jump into in a future article), but there are two kinds of tight ends in the NFL: The ones benefiting from vertical spacing offenses, and the ones who can actually carry the load when the rest of the receiving personnel doesn't match up. In the short term, Watson may be the first kind of player, but now with a team that requires the alternative.