Ravens fans collectively groaned at the news that Dennis Pitta’s hip injury would sideline him for the entire season. Pitta was the one player who was to fit Anquan Boldin’s style and production this coming season, and without him the Ravens have no choice but to lean on Ed Dickson and a number of unproven Wide Receivers.
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Enter Visanthe Shiancoe. Drafted in 2003, the 33 year-old Shiancoe was signed as a free agent less than 24 hours after the Pitta injury as our own Chris Worthington predicted. Due to the minimal delay in inking his deal, it is safe to assume that Shiancoe was likely to be signed regardless of injury. Nevertheless, comparisons to Pitta will be made by broadcasters all year long so I looked back at his recent film to see how Shiancoe will be integrated in the 2013 version of the Ravens offense.
What type of Tight-End is he?
During his years in Minnesota (2007-11) and in New England (2012) Shiancoe primarily aligned tight to the formation as a part of 2 or 3 tight-end sets. When teams run with multiple tight-ends, they generally use a run-first approach, keeping tight-ends in as blockers. But since 2008, Shiancoe has technically released to a run a route on more plays than he blocked (51:49%). Shiancoe has a fairly large frame at 6’4, 250lbs, and he uses his length to both reach for passes and block in the run game. Regardless of how his prior teams used him, Shiancoe’s attributes are best fit as a route-runner first and a blocker second.
So…can he block?
Ravens analysts whose opinions I respect (including Matt Vensel and Gordon McGuinness) have recently commented that Shiancoe is a below-average blocker, particularly in the run game. While I don’t disagree entirely, I saw many things about his blocking I liked on film. I noted that he had good blocking technique, firing low out of his stance and using his long arms to get into the chest of defenders even though he often finishes blocks too high. He also showed the ability to engage a variety of block types including reach blocks, down blocks, and combination blocks. In fact I thought that he showed excellent rapport with neighboring tackles (left and right) when working combination blocks including releasing to the second level.
My praise of his blocking is based on expectations I have set for players at his position. Shiancoe will never drive a defensive tackle back or kick-slide and anchor against an elite pass rusher. Shiancoe can contribute in the run game by holding his own on the strong side of zone runs or cutting down a trailing defender on the back side. He is the best blocking TE currently on the Ravens roster but I’d be surprised to see Shiancoe leading a runner through the hole (especially with two listed FBs).
In my opinion, Shiancoe is just good enough at blocking that defenses will not be able to simply assign a poor run defender to him to take away the pass. Therefore teams often assign better run defenders to his coverage in order to halt the run game:
The Raiders are playing their base 4-3 Over to defend the Viking’s 12 personnel. LB Kamerion Wimbley is in coverage on Shiancoe.
Ponder drops back as if to pass (eyes up) and Shiancoe releases past the D-End into his vertical “route.”
Shiancoe stems his route in toward Wimbley but breaks down in front of him to block for Peterson on the Draw. Shiancoe engages Wimbley with good hand position and Wimbley is kept far from making the play. To be fair, the block would have been more difficult if Wimbley actually moved after the snap (compare his position in Image #1 vs. #3).
In the pass game
The previous play shows how defenses can’t assume Shiancoe will only be used in the pass game. So why were teams still assuming this? Because Shiancoe is a viable threat in the aerial game, particularly in the redzone:
Minnesota has their 13 personnel (1RB, 3TEs) on the field as their Goalline offense. Boot-action is notoriously difficult to defend in the redzone and the prospect of stopping Adrian Peterson in the run game doesn’t help Green Bay’s chances.
Shiancoe releases inside of Safety Morgan Burnett in order to break to the back of the endzone. Dipping his shoulder is critical as Shiancoe keeps Burnett, who has bitten on the play-action, from impeding his route.
Burnett’s last attempt at stopping the touchdown was to tackle Shiancoe before the ball arrived. Shiancoe had accelerated to the sideline and caught the pass in spite of Burnett’s desperation.
The above play exemplifies his route-running, which is still very good as he often finds holes in underneath zones and runs away from defenders in the flat. However, he has route-running weaknesses that arise when he is asked to square-off patterns or break at acute angles. His age and frame have contributed to his reduced ability to cleanly break routes and make defenders bite on double-moves. These types of routes (particularly the Y-Shake) were once his strength but I don’t think we will see much of this from him on the Ravens.
I think that the Ravens will primarily use Shiancoe in two distinct areas. The first is on crossers. As I mentioned above, I don’t believe Shiancoe still has the speed to run away from defenders. He does, however, still use his length effectively. He showed the ability to catch throws on the run with a defender on his back provided the ball is thrown away from the trailing defender. The second primary use for Shiancoe in the pass game is in the flat. In Minnesota, Shiancoe often released from the backside into the opposite flat as a checkdown option for Christian Ponder. This included Flood and Tare combos. He also released into the flat off of play-action time and again:
In this play, Donovan McNabb will use Play-Action Iso Lead Weak to Peterson and boot to his left.
In the above image, Shiancoe is feigning interest in reaching across DE Mario Addison’s body to cut him off from the backside of the run. He releases this block and breaks to the flat.
The Bears loaded up the box to stop the run on 3rd and 1 and didn’t account for Shiancoe as he is wide open to run for the easy first down.
As good as Shiancoe can be in the short areas, he is a bit limited in the deeper portions of the field. Without the speed from his younger years, his route tree gets progressively less effective the deeper the patterns break. This hinders him from catching balls in the seams or on corner routes and when he has the ball in his hands, he can only run in the vertical plane.
If the Ravens use 2TE sets as much as they did when Pitta and Dickson were healthy, Shiancoe will likely be the blocker. Additionally, if a tight end were to flex into the slot, this would almost certainly be Dickson. Shiancoe has only run 13% of his total routes from the slot since 2008.
I do think the addition of Shiancoe to this team can help Ray Rice in interesting ways. If the Ravens use Shiancoe as a sixth blocker along the LOS, they can afford to reduce the number of times Ray Rice check-releases and can instead direct him to run routes off the snap. Rice has had a great deal of success with Option routes and Texas routes, particularly against linebackers. Shiancoe’s role as a checkdown option will allow Rice more freedom for designed routes as well. Lastly, (as BSL’s Mike Randall pointed out on the Ravens Rap podcast) the role of blocking-TE shifting from Dickson to Shiancoe is a huge upgrade in run-blocking. Dickson was a poor blocker for the Ravens backs last year and the addition of Shiancoe could impact the run game positively.