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How blitzes impact the target rate for fantasy TEs and pass-catching RBs

By Scott Spratt
Aug 16, 2017

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 27: Running Back James White #28 of the New England Patriots has a long gain against the New York Jets on November 27, 2016 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots defeated the Jets 22-17. (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

Football is wonderful because it is like chess. When one team takes a certain strategy, it impacts the decisions of every player in their assignments, movements, and decisions. Blitzes are a perfect example. When a defense blitzes the quarterback, he must recognize if and where pressure will come from and decide whether to abbreviate his progression of reads to release the ball more quickly. Running backs and tight ends need to recognize blitzes, as well, and adjust their pass protection assignments and routes accordingly.

When you watch a play, it is easy to identify a strategy like a blitz and all of the reactions that follow, but those subtleties tend to become lost when the game is done and summarized in a box score of yards and touchdowns. They do not need to be. Teams have different tendencies, both with respect to defensive strategies like blitzing and offensive strategies like reacting to blitzes. Once you recognize those tendencies, their impact on player statistics become just as clear as a specific strategy’s visual impact on a play.

Tight ends provide the most compelling evidence of an offense’s strategy for dealing with blitzes. That’s because tight ends tend to fill both seemingly opposed roles of providing extra protection for the quarterback and providing a safe target for a quick throw given the end’s typical advantage in either size or speed over his assigned defender. For fantasy, it is really important to know which of those roles a tight end tends to fill when blitzes come.

Last season, there were five tight ends who saw a marked increase in their target rate against blitzes:

Percentage of Team Targets on Non-Blitzes and Blitzes, 2016
Tight Ends, Min. 50 Targets

Player Team Non-Blitz Blitz Diff
Travis Kelce KC 20.1% 27.5% 7.4%
Martellus Bennett NE 10.8% 18.0% 7.2%
Greg Olsen CAR 22.2% 26.3% 4.1%
Jimmy Graham SEA 16.9% 19.7% 2.8%
Eric Ebron DET 17.4% 19.2% 1.8%
Ryan Griffin HST 12.7% 13.6% 0.9%
Clive Walford OAK 8.7% 9.5% 0.8%
Zach Ertz PHI 20.2% 20.7% 0.5%
Gary Barnidge CLV 14.9% 15.1% 0.2%
Jason Witten DAL 21.3% 21.0% -0.3%
Jordan Reed WAS 19.8% 18.8% -1.0%
Zach Miller CHI 19.2% 17.8% -1.4%
Will Tye NYG 12.3% 10.7% -1.6%
Vernon Davis WAS 11.7% 9.7% -2.0%
Dennis Pitta BLT 19.1% 16.8% -2.3%
C.J. Fiedorowicz HST 17.1% 14.5% -2.6%
Lance Kendricks LA 15.9% 12.6% -3.3%
Jermaine Gresham ARZ 10.8% 7.4% -3.4%
Jack Doyle IND 15.4% 9.9% -5.5%
Jesse James PIT 12.1% 5.8% -6.3%
Kyle Rudolph MIN 23.8% 17.2% -6.6%
Charles Clay BUF 22.5% 14.8% -7.7%

Travis Kelce, Martellus Bennett, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, and Eric Ebron are security blankets for their quarterbacks in the face of pressure. And while fantasy owners may not be able to predict when blitzes will come within a game, they can identify which defensive teams rely more heavily on that strategy. Against those heavy blitzers, Graham and Ebron, for example, can expect greater production. In contrast, Kyle Rudolph and Jack Doyle become less useful fantasy options in those matchups despite having similar or better fantasy expectations in general.

Many of the prototypical receiving backs like Theo Riddick and Darren Sproles see little decline in their target share against blitzes. But that is not universally true. James White, for example, saw a massive 10.1 percent decline in his target share against blitzes.

Percentage of Team Targets on Non-Blitzes and Blitzes, 2016
Running Backs, Min. 50 Targets

Player Team Non-Blitz Blitz Diff
Todd Gurley LA 10.8% 11.4% 0.6%
Theo Riddick DET 17.8% 16.7% -1.1%
Darren Sproles PHI 12.5% 11.1% -1.4%
LeSean McCoy BUF 14.9% 13.2% -1.7%
DeMarco Murray TEN 14.9% 11.6% -3.3%
Le’Veon Bell PIT 21.0% 17.6% -3.4%
Mark Ingram NO 9.7% 6.0% -3.7%
Travaris Cadet NO 10.8% 6.2% -4.6%
Melvin Gordon SD 16.6% 10.4% -6.2%
Jerick McKinnon MIN 12.7% 5.8% -6.9%
Ty Montgomery GB 12.9% 5.8% -7.1%
David Johnson ARZ 20.3% 12.8% -7.5%
Bilal Powell NYJ 16.0% 7.9% -8.1%
Duke Johnson Jr. CLV 16.8% 7.6% -9.2%
T.J. Yeldon JAX 14.8% 5.6% -9.2%
Devonta Freeman ATL 15.9% 6.2% -9.7%
James White NE 17.7% 7.6% -10.1%
Chris Thompson WAS 14.1% 2.1% -12.0%

It seems likely that the individual strengths and weaknesses of a team’s skill-position players impact their strategies. LeSean McCoy is a poor pass protector, and he tends to run routes against blitzes. White didn’t grade any better in pass protection than either Riddick or Sproles, but White did share the field with Bennett, who Tom Brady clearly enjoyed throwing to in the face of blitzes. That example is particularly interesting because Bennett is now on the Packers. Maybe White will start to see more balls in those situations, or maybe Dwayne Allen will fill Bennett’s role. That situation and many others will merit watching during the season.

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