Blocking is a dying skill among tight ends in the game of football. The Buffalo Bills have a coach ideally suited to combat that trend.
Pete Metzelaars was one of the best blocking tight ends in the game during his 15-year NFL career, 10 of which came with the Bills from 1985 to 1994. Now Metzelaars is passing on his knowledge as the team's new tight ends coach.
Metzelaars, hired in February after an eight-year stint as an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, does not lament the poor number of tight end blockers.
"Blocking comes down to heart and will, it really does," he said after Friday's practice in Orchard Park. "Are you willing to put the effort in? Are you going to work hard at it and take pride in doing it? If you're going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I'm a receiver,' it's hard to get you to block."
Big, fast tight ends have made a greater impact in the passing game over the past decade. Last season, 17 tight ends caught 50 or more passes. In Metzelaars' last season with the Bills, 1994, just four caught at least 50 balls.
However, fewer and fewer tight ends are "well-rounded," able to block reasonably well and catch passes. The escalation of the spread offense in college football has had a big effect on the position in the NFL.
"With tight ends coming out of college, you've got to search to find times where they're blocking anybody," Metzelaars said. "There's not many programs that ask them to. There are a few that still run an NFL-type offense. But most of them are all the spread stuff."
"Hopefully some of them will play in the all-star games," Metzelaars said. "Most of the time you see the first day [at all-star game practices], they're getting blown up, because they've never been asked to do it. You hope to see improvement through the week."
The NFL has responded by using a lot of fast tight ends exclusively in slot-receiver roles. Two prime examples are New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and New England's Aaron Hernandez, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and 4.64 seconds, respectively. Both rarely block.
In the NFL Draft over the past four years, on average, seven of the top 12 ranked tight ends have run a 40 time of faster than 4.7 seconds. In the four-year period from 1999 to 2002, the average was just two of the top 12 running better than 4.7, according to News rankings.
"It's amazing," Metzelaars said. "You're getting more athletic guys who can run at the position."
The number of top receiving tight ends who are outstanding blockers is small. New England's Rob Gronkowski is a great blocker who caught 17 TD passes last season, a record for tight ends. He's 6-foot-6, 265 pounds and he ran the 40 in 4.68 seconds. Dallas veteran Jason Witten has 696 career catches and is a very good blocker. Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis is excellent blocking and receiving. Dallas' Martellus Bennett, Miami's Anthony Fasano and Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph are three of the best blocking tight ends. They're passable receivers.
Having a tight end who is well-rounded gives an offense flexibility and helps keep defenses guessing.
"There's no question," Metzelaars said. "Because the defense looks at it and says, ‘This guy can't block, and he won't block.' They tell their defensive ends, ‘Put your hat in the middle of this guy's chest and run him over.'"
Defenses like those in Philadelphia, Detroit and Tennessee, which employ their defensive ends in extra wide positions (a ‘wide-9' alignment) make it even harder on blocking tight ends.
"Instead of an old-school 3-4, where you're blocking an outside linebacker, kind of a fair fight, a lot of times you're having to block defensive ends," Metzelaars said. "They get in that wide-9 and pick a spot 6 yards deep in the backfield on an angle, and they're just going all out to get to that spot, run over anything in their way. That's a hard block for a tight end. You need to have some stoutness to get it done, or at least have a willingness to stick your face in, play with leverage and use the tools you have."
The Bills have a good receiving tight end in Scott Chandler. He's not an elite speedster, like Gronkowski, Graham or Hernandez. But he has great hands and a big frame. He's a passable blocker, good enough to keep defenses honest.
"I think he's a solid blocker," Metzelaars said. "He's not a great blocker. He's not a real powerful guy, but he's a big body. He'll put his face in there. He does some things that are different than I've taught and that I like to see, so I'm trying to get him to buy into my stuff a little more. And I'm trying to learn from him what he's had success with in the past. He's willing, he's able and he moves his feet and can play with leverage. … If you do that, you can get it done."
The Bills have an elite blocker in No. 2 TE Lee Smith, a 6-6, 266-pounder claimed off waivers from New England last summer.
"Lee Smith is a powerful man," Metzelaars said. "You've got to love what he does. …You can stick him in and say, ‘We're gonna run behind him, I don't care who they line up over him.'"
"Now he has limitations the other way – the athleticism," Metzelaars said. "So you have to find opportunities to use him in the passing game, where it's not – this guy's in, they're running every time."
Metzelaars knows about keeping defenses honest. His 302 catches in Buffalo are sixth most in team history and most among Bills tight ends. His 235 games played were an NFL record for tight ends until Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez broke it last season.
One of Metzelaars' finest hours in Buffalo was the 1993 AFC title game when the Bills rushed for 229 yards in a 30-13 rout of Kansas City. Metzelaars' dominant blocking helped force the Chiefs to bench Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas.
"We ran ‘em out of the stadium that day and beat Joe Montana up," Metzelaars said.
Metzelaars spent six years in Indianapolis tutoring under legendary line coach Howard Mudd.
"I think it was awesome," Metzelaars said of his time with Mudd. "He's a terrific guy. He can wear you out a little bit. He's very opinionated. You do it his way, or you're an idiot. And his way has worked for a long, long time. But he's also very intelligent and very open minded. "
Bills receivers Donald Jones and Marcus Easley displayed good hands and were offensive standouts in Friday's final organized team activity workout. Jones caught a long bomb from Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first play of the practice, and had two TD catches in goal-line work. The Bills have three mandatory minicamp practices set for next week.