The issue first popped up during Week 1, when the New Orleans Saints were playing the Arizona Cardinals. That was the first time a tight end got open for a big gain against this defense.
That one seemed excusable. The man tasked with covering Darren Fells got picked trying to fight through a bunch formation, and the Cardinals tight end got wide open for a 48-yard gain.
The problem: The play was only the first of many. The issues with tight ends have continued in one form or fashion in the weeks since.
New Orleans has allowed 725 receiving yards and 13.43 yards per reception to tight ends this season. The overall yards is the worst mark in the NFL, and the average per reception ranks 31st.
Some of the issues have been due to matchups. The Saints have faced Carolina’s Greg Olsen, Tennessee’s Delanie Walker and Atlanta’s Jacob Tamme, all of whom rank among the top 10 tight ends in terms of yards.
But it’s also unquestionable that the Saints have had some issues covering the position. That could be an issue this week with New Orleans facing Washington tight end Jordan Reed, who has racked up 368 yards in six weeks.
So the question is: Why have tight ends been able to do so much damage against the Saints?
“It’s kind of all of us — the strong safety, the linebackers, the underneath coverage,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Even the first week to Fells. He hasn’t really caught a ball since then. Pick play, and Rafael Bush tears his pec trying to tackle him. It’s just one of those seasons.”
Fells had 82 yards against the Saints and currently has 146 for the season. And Vaccaro is right: Everyone has been culpable in allowing tight ends to get open and rack up yards. But some people or coverages have been more responsible than others.
The Saints have given up two big receptions while in man coverage against tight ends — the pass to Fells and a 52-yard reception to Olsen — but have otherwise been solid. On all other completions to tight ends, New Orleans has allowed an average of 10.9 yards per reception.
That would rank 20th in the NFL, which isn’t anything to celebrate, but it’s much better than the 12.48 yards per reception the team is allowing while in zone coverage. It’s on those plays when you see tight ends running free, as Walker did twice during last week’s loss.
Opposing tight ends have recorded eight plays of 20 or more yards against the Saints when they are in zone. That number, as well as the overall yardage total, is likely limited since some of the busted coverages New Orleans has had have come in the red zone.
And it’s only fair to note that some of the zone issues have come with players fighting injuries, such as linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has missed five games with an injury. When healthy, he has been a key figure in covering tight ends and making plays underneath in zone coverage.
It’s probably not a coincidence that New Orleans’ zone coverage has allowed 10 fewer yards per game to tight ends when Ellerbe is on the field than when he is on the sideline.
That Saints know they have had some issues against tight ends, but the statistics have come as a surprise.
“I see the statistics y’all put up, and I’m like, ‘We’re really giving that much up to tight ends?’ ” Vaccaro said. “But you got to think (of the fluke plays) and things like that. Olsen did a good job in the red zone; those were zones.”
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan acknowledges there have been issues covering tight ends, but he also believes the issue is that teams are using tight ends more often than in previous years.
“You turn a guy loose. Hell, that’s who caught the ball — two tight ends,” he said, referencing a pair of catches by Walker. “We had a zone coverage there. Should have been waiting for him. And then, on goal line, we turned one loose on a play action. I think a lot of teams are featuring more tight ends in the red zone, so their scoring is probably up all around the league. It is what it is.”
But he also doesn’t feel the amount of yards is the result of a lack of trying.
“We’re giving tight ends plenty of attention,” he said. “I know that.”
The Saints will have to give Reed plenty this week.