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Robinson: Development of tight end dates to evolution of safeties

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:40 p.m.
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu plays against the Vikings Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 at Wembley Stadium in London England.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu plays against the Vikings Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 at Wembley Stadium in London England.

Teams are employing tight ends not only as run blockers and the occasional passing target but also as the primary source of passing yardage. Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots is Exhibit A.

Already this season, 24 tight ends have 20 or more catches, led by Jordan Cameron's 45 for Cleveland. At this point 10 years ago, 10 tight ends had that many catches. Twenty years ago, only eight did.

“It's just more of an inclusion (of tight ends) in the spread offenses and a lot of the no-huddle offenses,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “The tight end becomes a force in the middle of a defense that has to be spread out to cover boundary to boundary. They've always got the possibility of a size mismatch with him down there on your safeties.”

So where did this tight end evolution begin? Partly with New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, who caught 14 touchdown passes combined during the 2005-06 seasons. But also with Troy Polamalu. Let him explain.

“With all due respect to the tight end, I think the evolution of the safety came first,” said Polamalu, a rookie in 2003. “The reason why I say this is (because)people were primarily box safeties, zone cover safeties, (safeties) who drop into zone, who (eye) the quarterback. But when I first came into the league, they wanted more safeties that were able to play man-to-man on receivers, yet play the run equally well and play in space.”

When physical safeties like Polamalu and Ed Reed emerged to help control top receivers and the run, tight-end play became more important.

“It's not necessarily a schematic problem or a game-planning problem; it's about the matchups,” safety Ryan Clark said. “If you have a Heath Miller, then you can build an offense around the tight end. If you have a Jimmy Graham (of New Orleans), you can do that. What gets a little more difficult is when you have that tight end and you have other options. You look at what Cincinnati's able to do with (Tyler) Eifert and (Jermaine) Gresham because you have an A.J. Green on the outside.”

With the larger-yet-faster tight ends increasingly becoming a matchup headache for linebackers (they're too slow at times) and safeties (they're too small at times), the Patriots recently took the drastic step of playing cornerback Aqib Talib one-on-one against Graham.

The 6-foot-7 Graham, coming off four consecutive 100-yard games, was targeted six times by Drew Brees but made no catches despite his 6-inch height advantage.

“If you put a guy on him (Graham) his size like a linebacker, the linebacker has no shot,” Clark said. “At least with having Talib on him, they were able to make him work off the line and also cover him downfield speed wise. So all he really had was a size advantage. And I'm sure he had help on some of those plays.”

Might the Steelers employ something similar next week at New England? Almost certainly not. Ike Taylor hasn't shadowed a tight end like that.

The Steelers' primary tight end coverage men are a big linebacker (Lawrence Timmons) and … Polamalu.

Just like when the evolution began.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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