Pass protection, run blocking schemes, picking up the blitz and good decision making all contribute to offensive success. Brian Filipiak looks at an old-school blocking tight end, Patriot Michael Williams, being used in a modern passing attack.
More and more teams in the NFL are turning to faster, highly athletic tight ends to augment their offense. Blocking tight ends around the league have been largely reduced to rarely noticed specialists. In an effort to squeeze every last drop of versatility out of a 53-man roster, the role of the blocking tight end in some cases has even been replaced altogether by a backup offensive lineman – a bigger, stronger version of its predecessor with a presumably more refined skill set as a blocker. The New England Patriots ‒ no stranger to tight end heavy sets and using extra offensive linemen to serve in that capacity ‒ now have a combination of the two roles in TE/OT Michael Williams.
The 6-foot-6 and 304-pound Williams, acquired by the Patriots in a trade with the Detroit Lions for a future seventh round pick with two weeks remaining in the pre-season, entered the league out of Alabama in 2013 as the prototypical blocking tight end. But after a lost rookie year due to injury, the Lions converted the towering Williams to offensive tackle the following season. The former seventh round pick spent the entire 2014 schedule on the Detroit practice squad trying to learn his new craft and continued to do so at Lions training camp this summer before the trade to New England.
The tight end turned offensive tackle was soon recast in his original role upon his arrival in Foxboro. With Scott Chandler already second on the tight end depth chart behind Rob Gronkowski, the battle for third string began between Williams and Michael Hoomanawanui, the incumbent blocking tight end. The team elected to keep four tight ends on the roster to start the regular season, but Williams impressed the coaching staff enough to warrant more snaps (59 total including special teams) through the first two games than Hoomanawanui (27) by a two-to-one margin.
The emergence of Williams allowed New England to trade Hoomanawanui ‒ a healthy inactive in Week 3 for the first time in his Patriots career ‒ to the New Orleans Saints for DE/DT Akiem Hicks to help address depth issues along the defensive line.
Block This Way
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Williams is responsible for the end man on the line of scrimmage in this one-back power run to his side. The tight end absorbs outside linebacker James Harrison (#92) with a basic drive block. While Williams appears to be in control, the crafty veteran is likely biding his time, looking to shed toward the inside running lane. However, Lewis (#33) sets up his blocker extremely well, with a hand and helmet flash to the outside. This causes both Harrison and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (#50) to also scrape outside.
As Lewis wiggles back to the middle, Williams uses Harrison’s momentum to his advantage, pinning the inside shoulder of the defender and completing the block to the ground. At the same time, Shazier is tripped up because of his close proximity to both players, preventing him from filling the hole. The combination of Williams strength on the block and Lewis’s exceptional read managed to offset the poor timing of the backside pull from RT Sebastian Vollmer (#76).
Later in the game, Williams is once again tasked with blocking Harrison on a one-back power run play to his side:
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Even though Harrison shifts from a wide 9 alignment into a head-up position just before the snap, Williams has no problem down blocking the linebacker with authority all the way to the ground. With the perimeter sealed off, Lewis slices upfield for 11 yards, showing off his ability to maintain speed through multiple cuts.
It’s possible that Williams’s assignment on this gap run was always Harrison ‒ and never Shazier, who RG Shaq Mason (#69) traps on the backside pull ‒ but the late movement by the defender nonetheless changed the type of block the tight end needed to make on the play.
Williams played a season-high 31 offensive snaps (39%) in Week 3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars where he continued to show progress as an inline blocker in the running game. Here, the tight end worked in tandem with Vollmer on a successful combo block, allowing running back LeGarrette Blount (#29) to turn the corner for a gain:
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As the playside tight end on this fullback led running play, Williams takes a lateral step outside while delivering a punch to defensive end Chris Clemons (#91) right off the snap, essentially passing off the defender to Vollmer for the reach block. With Clemons accounted for, Williams quickly peels off into the second level to meet linebacker Telvin Smith (#50). The tight end pins the defender inside and eventually rag dolls him to the ground. Blount picks up 9 yards on the play.
This is a good example of how Williams can use his size in concert with sound technique and footwork to box out defenders on runs to the perimeter.
Pass Protection In Progress
Through his first three games, Williams has been mostly used as an inline blocker on running plays (36 snaps). In his 18 total pass protection opportunities, the tight end has stood his ground fairly well, allowing one pressure/hurry on a play that ended with a Jacksonville sack, albeit mostly due to good coverage:
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Williams does a solid job on his lead step to simulate a run block on the hard-selling play-fake. Jared Odrick appears to read run initially as he takes a short hop forward and locks onto Williams. The tight end grapples with the defender, doing his best to keep Odrick centered to his body on the bull rush. Williams ultimately struggles to fully anchor against the pass rusher, who walks the blocker toward the back of quarterback Tom Brady. With the QB unable to unload the ball after nearly five seconds, the Jaguars defensive front swoops in from all directions for the sack.
Keeping Them Honest
In a pass-heavy attack against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2, the Patriots utilized Williams more in the passing game (7 snaps in route) than as a run blocker (3 snaps). On this play, the tight end secured his first and only catch thus far on the young season:
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Starting off as an inline blocker covered up by the defensive end, Williams receives a free release off the line of scrimmage and runs a shallow drag route. The Bills blitz, sending six on the rush including middle linebacker Preston Brown (#52) ‒ the lone underneath defender over the short-middle. Brady quickly finds his big tight end on the short throw. Williams snatches the ball and rumbles for 15 yards. Overall, Williams has had just nine snaps in route with his only target coming on the above play.
Generally receiving little to no attention throughout the course of a game ‒ at least until missing an assignment ‒ pure blocking tight ends can still be an important game plan element. In New England, one team’s failed right tackle is now their rock ‘em, sock ‘em blocking tight end. Built in the mold of former New York Jets TE Kyle Brady ‒ another tackle in tight end’s clothing who played for the Patriots in 2007 ‒ Williams is a hybrid of a hybrid, with the look of an athletic offensive tackle and the hands of a capable receiving threat. Whether it’s through a smash-mouth running style or a little trickeration, tight ends in the mold of Williams may not elicit much excitement but they still can help offenses earn those precious few extra inches that can make a difference.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.
Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.