It’s no wonder Jim Harbaugh hit the ground running as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers after a successful four-year stint at Stanford.
Harbaugh was ahead of his time on the collegiate level as it relates to the use of multiple tight ends in the passing game. It all came together in 2011 under first-year head coach David Shaw, who took Harbaugh’s tight end philosophy and ramped it up a couple of notches.
Andrew Luck’s favorite targets generally weren’t the wideouts, but rather, guys like 6-foot-6, 245-pound Coby Fleener, 6-foot-6, 252-pound Zach Ertz, and 6-foot-8, 265-pound Levine Toilolo, who combined for an incredible 86 catches for 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011.
Fleener is gone, joining the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft as the Indianapolis Colts’ second-round choice. But Toilolo and Ertz are at it again for the Cardinal (4-1), who bring their unique brand of offense to Notre Dame Stadium to take on the undefeated and No. 7-ranked Fighting Irish Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a nightmare,” summarized Irish head coach Brian Kelly when talking about stopping Stanford’s tight end attack. “We’ve got to have some answers there. If it just becomes one-on-one match-ups every single time, we’re going to have to look at some different key coverages.”
Ertz and Toilolo have combined for 34 catches for 594 yards (17.4 yards per reception) in five games. The two tight ends have caught 38.3 percent of the Cardinal completions. Four of Stanford’s eight touchdowns through the air have gone to the tight end tandem.
"It's basically a skinnier lineman running out there who can catch and has some speed."
-- Manti Te'o
“They have dual-threat tight ends and they’re big, they’re tall and they take up a lot of space,” said Irish linebacker Manti Te’o. “They’re a threat. They have great hands and run great routes.
“It’s basically a skinnier lineman running out there who can catch and has some speed. So whenever you have that threat, it’s similar to a dual-threat quarterback. You have to understand what you’re going against, their tendencies and their strengths. Obviously, their tight ends are really good.”
It’s not that Stanford’s tight ends necessarily catch an inordinate number of passes. In 2010, Harbaugh’s last year on The Farm, Fleener, Ertz and former Irish tight end Konrad Reuland combined for 65 receptions, which is about what a top tight end in the country would snag. Stanford spreads the wealth with its tight ends.
But it’s the productivity of those connections that is so deadly. Thirteen of those receptions - 20 percent - went for touchdowns in 2010. Last year, Stanford’s tight ends scored nearly once every fourth reception (20 touchdowns, 86 catches). Fleener averaged 19.6 yards per catch, which is well more than most wide receivers. Among the trio, they averaged 15.7 yards per grab.
“You have to press them out,” said Kelly of Stanford’s tight ends. “You can’t give them off coverage. They’re just going to throw it to him and he’s going to run the corner over every time.”
Okay, so press the tight end. Provide safety help over the top, much like opponents do Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. Well, that’s when 5-foot-11, 215-pound bruiser Stepfan Taylor hurts you in the running game as the safeties back away from the line of scrimmage and try to help out on the tight ends in the passing game.
Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have been emphasizing the importance of re-routing receivers off the line of scrimmage. In other words, getting hands, arms and a body on the receiver as he tries to run his route and before the quarterback releases the football. That throws the receiver off his route and disrupts the timing of the pass for the quarterback.
“We liked our re-routing,” said Kelly after Notre Dame’s successful effort against Miami’s receivers in the 41-3 victory last Saturday night.
“We thought we missed a couple of opportunities to re-route on the perimeter. But by and large, we were spot on, we were disciplined, and we put ourselves in a good position to succeed.”
“Re-routing is another way of making sure that everybody is doing their job and everybody has their responsibility,” Te’o said. “It’s just trying to put our guys in situations where we can make a play.”
Of course, if it were that easy, someone would have shut down Stanford’s tight end attack by now. Plus, re-routing a big tight end is more difficult that re-routing a speedy wideout.
In 2010, when the Cardinal manhandled the Irish, 37-14, Fleener and Reuland combined for seven catches and 105 yards with Fleener scoring the first touchdown of the day. Last year against Notre Dame, Fleener, Ertz and Toilolo combined for seven catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns - two by Fleener (28 and 55 yards) and one by Toilolo (three yards).
“You’ve got to press (the tight end) because you’re bringing somebody down in the run game and you’re getting virtually all one-on-one press coverage,” Kelly said. “Every route gets converted when it’s pressed for the most part, and it becomes one-on-one, throw-the-ball-up-there.
“Some teams have limited that and some have not. We hope to be the team that can limit that.”
It’s the next challenge for one of the great defenses in the country.