Two years ago, the Detroit Lions had a problem fielding tight ends who could run block because all of its veterans in the position group kept getting injured. After parting ways with Eric Ebron in March and losing Darren Fells to the Browns in free agency, the team signed veterans Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo to one-year deals. Bundled with 2017 fourth-round pick Michael Roberts, that did not make for a particularly imposing unit in June.
However, for some reason the coaching staff made a point of talking up additional usage of tight ends in spite of basically starting over from scratch at the position. As our Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his 13 personnel article, some of this may have to do with general manager Bob Quinn’s commitment to (finally?) establishing the run:
It may seem a little counterintuitive for the Lions to rely more heavily on their tight ends this year, especially considering that in addition to the Lions’ slight downgrade in talent at the position, they also have an abundance of talent at running back and receiver. Taking those players off the field for a ragtag group of tight ends seems dangerous.
But if the Lions are serious about legitimizing a running game, tight ends are going to play a key role. And while the talent may not be jaw-dropping, the skillset of each tight end may be enough to help the running game, while also bringing the versatility to improve the Lions’ already impressive play-action efficiency.
During the preseason, the big story with the tight ends turned out to be the huge surprise of Hakeem Valles making the 53-man roster, but he mostly made it on the strength of his play in the passing game. During the preseason, a different tight end stood out on tape as delivering consistently good run blocking and his name is Levine Toilolo.
Maintaining at the line
Whether at the point of attack or cutting off a back side defender who could crash down the line and run a play down from behind, a tight end capable of standing a big body up from a three-point stance is tremendously valuable. Against the Giants and Buccaneers, the Lions got a good look at Toilolo controlling his man at the snap. Here we take a look at two examples, one on the front and one on the back side of the play.
2018 Preseason Week 3 vs TAM, 2Q (15:00). Second-and-9 at the Detroit 3.
Backed up against their own goal line at the start of the second quarter, the Lions run a safe play to 29 HB LeGarrette Blount up the middle. 87 TE Levine Toilolo in a quasi-bunch to the left side of the formation has 90 DE Jason Pierre-Paul lined up in front of him in a three-point stance.
At the snap, the veteran tight end is one-on-one with JPP and in a crucial spot along the front. We can see in the left panel above where Blount makes his first hop cut (boxed in yellow) Pierre-Paul would be in the backfield (boxed in pink) to blow up the play if he wins against Toilolo in run defense. The block is solid, though, and in the middle panel the ball-carrier blasts through. It is great to see a tight end maintaining the block on a down lineman all the way until the runner is being tackled in the right panel.
Our second example, pulled from the second preseason game against the Giants, features that bane of Lions fans: one yard to go for the first down.
2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 1Q (10:14). Second-and-1 at the Detroit 26.
From a super heavy 22 personnel formation with 21 HB Ameer Abdullah set back behind 43 FB Nick Bellore, Detroit goes G Lead left to the double tight end side of the line. 77 LG Frank Ragnow is the kick out block on the end man on the line of scrimmage (21 S Landon Collins off screen in the image above) while Bellore leads through the hole on 93 ILB B.J. Goodson. Toilolo and 82 TE Luke Willson will double-team 96 OLB Kareem Martin at the point of attack.
Due to Martin’s alignment, Willson effectively pins the linebacker inside against Toilolo’s block (boxed in pink). Bellore advances to the hole and throws a mean shoulder into Goodson, but Jenkins is in position—along with more inside help—to cut off the designed hole. Thankfully, the double-team on Martin is so solid that it provides Abdullah another option: follow Ragnow. In the last panel on the right, we can see Ragnow blasting Collins backwards to widen a hole on the edge.
Collins is listed at an even six feet in height and 218 pounds. Detroit’s first-round selection in the most recent draft is officially listed at 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, so it is not really fair (or meant to be fair). As long as those blocks on the play side are executed well, all Abdullah has to do is patiently follow the mass to get to the sticks.
Kicking the edge out
Other times as (usually) the last blocker on the edge of the box, the tight end will be asked to be the guy who kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage instead of relying on a puller or the fullback. As shown by Ragnow above, widening the last guy trying to set the edge of the defense creates a nice running lane to cut up into. It turns out Levine Toilolo is pretty damn good at getting this done, too.
2018 Preseason Week 3 vs TAM, 3Q (14:34). First-and-10 at the Detroit 37.
Immediately following a first down completion from 9 QB Matthew Stafford to 15 WR Golden Tate, the Lions hurry to the line in 11 personnel and run Power O to the left. Lined up outside of 68 LT Taylor Decker, Toilolo has to go one-on-one against 94 DE Will Clarke to widen the lane for Ragnow (lined up at right guard for a resting 76 T.J. Lang) to pull through.
19 WR Kenny Golladay makes a nice block down the field on 39 S Isaiah Johnson, and Blount slips a tackle for ten yards on first down.
2018 Preseason Week 2 vs TAM, 3Q (6:09). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 39.
Later in the same quarter, 8 QB Matt Cassel made a nice check (“Alert! Alert!”) at the line in this offset I-formation when he saw the numbers in the box. If you look at the image above, the Lions have four blockers to the left of the center for four defenders and can therefore put a hat on a hat. On the right side (Detroit’s left), there are four defenders and just the center plus two linemen.
Again, Toilolo is on the outside and will try to kick out 49 LB Riley Bullough for lead zone to the right. We can see in the image from the replay above that the former Stanford product is spectacularly successful in doing so.
Abdullah explodes up the field for 14 yards and another first down. The gaps are so wide that CBS commentator Trent Green marveled at how there was more than just the designed lead-blocked gap to run through: “Look at the blocking, the lanes that are here - he can pick one of two different lanes. Excellent job up front by the Lions.”
Forward down the field
Another aspect of run blocking that can contribute to a steady flow of big plays is locating and taking out potential tacklers in space. We often hear analysts talk about how receivers who make blocks downfield or out on the perimeter are difference makers that spring a running game’s chunk plays; the same holds for tight ends. More than once in the preseason, we have seen good effort and awareness past the line of scrimmage from Toilolo.
2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 3Q (11:43). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 34.
Although the yardage was called back due to a holding penalty against 73 C Wesley Johnson, this draw play by 33 HB Kerryon Johnson gave Toilolo an opportunity to get to the next level and make a nice block. Here the tight end releases into a fake pattern then looks for the most dangerous linebacker (55 OLB Ray Ray Armstrong) to the expected run path for the ball-carrier.
Not only does he track his man and get engaged, but he even loops around to square up in proper position. This is a really good job and a shame the 12-yard gain went to waste.
2018 Preseason Week 2 vs TAM, 2Q (4:03). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.
Again from an offset I-formation, this time with the starters against Tampa Bay, the Lions have Toilolo releasing down the field to block veteran Pro Bowler 54 LB Lavonte David on Power O to the right. The thing to notice here is the sustained effort against a very respected defender.
In the above image, we have made sure the line of scrimmage in blue is clearly visible for use as a reference point. First, look at the left panel and note where the two players initiate contact and engage the block. Then, look at the right panel and check out the yard line where David and Toilolo end up: in the pile along with Kerryon Johnson after an 8-yard run.
Given that Valles making the roster was unexpected and the consistency of Roberts still amounting to a big question mark, most of the playing time will probably boil down to Willson and Toilolo. If the team is serious about establishing the run with a physical style, don’t count out Levine Toilolo, who has proven that he will get it done in the run game.
To understand the quality of blocking from the former Atlanta fourth-round pick, consider that he was only credited with 18 offensive snaps against the Giants in the second preseason game and 19 offensive snaps against the Buccaneers in the third preseason game. This article alone highlights six instances of good run blocking effort from him, so just imagine what he could do over the course of the entire season. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing him get that opportunity as a Lion.