Golden Tate: Elusiveness, constraint theory, & his contract year

Otto Greule Jr

The thought of losing any of the current regime's highly-drafted players to free agency is, after three full years, finally starting to become a potential reality. Golden Tate, Seattle's 2nd round pick in the 2010 Draft - the 60th pick overall, so really not far from being a first-round type of player - enters his contract season and will be one to watch closely. Will the Seahawks extend him before it's all said and done or will they let him hit unrestricted free agency? Will they wait and see how he plays, how consistent he is, how much he's improved over the offseason, or will they start talks before he has his 'breakout?' Either way, it's a calculated gamble to wait or to let him walk.

I've recently come to the conclusion (in my brain... using thoughts) that Seattle should definitely extend Tate's contract in Seattle (not an easy decision in actuality, considering the amount of money Seattle has invested in pass-catchers), for several simple reasons. Principal among them is Tate's breakout performances in the second half of 2012, due in a large part to his apparent and obvious on-field chemistry with Russell Wilson. This may be a bit vague, of course, but I actually feel like the Seahawks' offense had a different dynamic to it when Tate was on the field. More of a YAC, explosiveness element that had been missing for quite a while.

Tate's 'breakout' game in 2012 in Week 8 against the Lions, when Russell Wilson connected with him seven times for 64 yards. He was consistent, numbers wise, throughout the year, but after that Detroit game, he became one of DangeRuss' favorite targets, and a lot of it came down to his ability to work off-script when Russ scrambled. This 'extend the play' mentality isn't something that's going to go away, and it's something the Seahawks have apparently embraced from their quarterback.

That said, there are other reasons Tate fits the Seahawks to a T - he's a great and willing downfield blocker, he's good on the jump ball, can high-point passes, has strong hands and is consistent catching the ball - to use a scout's term - "he attacks the football", and also importantly, is extremely dangerous after the catch. We've said it for some time now that Tate looks like a running back after he makes the catch, he's got an internal gyroscope and low center of gravity that keeps him upright even when taking hits, and I've probably never seen someone with better balance coming out of a catch and into running downfield. You also don't see many players as adept at open field spin moves as Golden Tate.

His breakaway speed isn't elite, but I actually feel that his lateral agility and footspeed is among the best in the league - if you get the chance to go to training camp this year, just watch his feet, it's pretty impressive and noticeable how he uses his footwork to beat defenders.

Naturally, Seattle fans have compared Tate to now-Seahawk Percy Harvin for the past few years, and while they're different stylistically, the statistics in terms of open-field elusiveness bear the comparison out.

As Hazbro put it recently:

"Over on the Dangeruss thread Jacob posted a link for QB houdinis (from FootballOutsiders), and it also has broken tackle stats for receivers, of which Harvin led the NFL with 19 in his shortened season. Clocking in at #5, with 14, was Tate. But what was absolutely nuts was that Tate broke tackles on 29.2% of his touches, which led all receivers by an absurd amount. Darrius Heyward-Bey was second at 25.6% and Harvin was third at 22.6%. The next closest was Dez Bryant at 17%. Tate broke a tackle on nearly one-third of touches, the next guy was a touch over one-fourth.

Tate and Harvin are the two hardest receivers to bring down in the NFL, apparently, and they'll be lining up next to each other this season. This is the stuff that gives defensive coordinators ulcers."

As that FO article mentioned above notes, "Percy Harvin once again led all wide receivers and tight ends with 19 broken tackles. He was down in 2011 (just six), but had led the league in both 2009 and 2010" - so to recap - Harvin led the league in total broken tackles in nine games in 2012 after also leading the NFL in that category in 2009 and 2010. Of course, his 19 broken tackles this year came in an injury-shortened season, but he was targeted a lot in those nine games - 62 catches and 22 rushing attempts, as compared to Tate's 45 catches and 3 rushes the whole year. Tate, meanwhile, broke more tackles per touch than any other player on the top of the list.

I'll repeat what Hazbro said because it's awesome: "Tate and Harvin are the two hardest receivers to bring down in the NFL, apparently, and they'll be lining up next to each other this season. This is the stuff that gives defensive coordinators ulcers."

The thing about Tate and Harvin though is that while they're both tough to bring down with the ball in their hands, they're pretty different players, even if we've been trying to compare them to each other for years. Most obviously, Tate is an outside player, typically aligning as the X, opposite Sidney Rice, whereas Percy is mainly in inside threat from the slot or the backfield. The fun thing about it though is that both players are versatile enough to play either role, which should make the gameplanning for Seattle extremely challenging. Darrell Bevell isn't shy about mixing up the alignments and formations of his receivers, and one thing that was very common last year was to see a receiver overload to one side of the field. The matchup issues facing opposing defenses this year with Tate and Harvin on the field at the same time will be interesting to watch.

Say they both line up in '12' personnel - two receivers, two tight ends, and one running back - with Tate and Harvin out on the left wing. Do opposing defensive coordinators rotate their corner (in man) over to Tate/Harvin in the slot, or do they go instead with a nickelback, safety, or linebacker to that side, covering the slot? Any safety/linebacker on Tate or Harvin is going to be a good matchup for Seattle.

The Seahawks can dictate this type of thing too because, remember, with two tight end sets, running is a primary option as well, so defenses have to think twice about putting a nickelback in over a linebacker, because that opens you up to giving up more against the run.

If said defense does leave their corner on his normal side and puts a safety or linebacker on Tate/Harvin in the slot, that also leaves potential matchup issues for that corner with respects to one of Seattle's tight ends on the right wing. For example, if Bevell flexes, say Anthony McCoy or Luke Willson out to the wing, you've got a corner-on-tight end matchup that will often leave Seattle with a huge height/size advantage.

Conversely, if the defense does rotate their corner (in man) over to the overloaded side with Tate and Harvin, that corner has to play in space as a de factor slot nickelback, which can be very unnatural for someone used to using the sideline.

I've seen this tactic used against Seattle when Dallas came to the CLink in Week 2 (and many other times, but this one just comes to mind). The Cowboys overloaded one wing with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, and the Seahawks brought Brandon Browner over in man, marking Austin in the slot. This is an awful mismatch with Browner in open space, and Austin ran a simple in-route fake, which Browner bit on, then he curled out toward the sideline. Romo threw it to him for a touchdown, and it frankly looked easy. Seattle now has some talent at receiver that makes these types of things possible. Consider that in that Dallas game, while Tate and Rice got the start and Doug Baldwin saw action as well, Ben Obomanu (28), Evan Moore (22), and Braylon Edwards (9) each got significant snaps.

Now. Let me circle back a bit because I'm just starting to ramble. For me - Tate is a big factor on the Seahawks' offense and as I said, gives Seattle a different dynamic when he's in the game. One thing that you love about Tate is that he's very adept at running deep, longer developing routes and attacks the football in the air - Doug Baldwin is great at this too, and you'll notice that toward the end of the year, if Seattle was launching bombs on play-action, it was usually to Tate or Baldwin. Sidney Rice is more of a sideline, amazing catch on a deep drag type of receiver, a guy that can move the chains and come up with the difficult diving catch, but Doug and Golden are the two go-to guys when it comes to bombing it out on jump balls.

And that's Seattle's game. Run the football, pound your opponent into submission, get them to bite on play-action, and strike deep. Run the rock and create explosive plays. These are the pillars of Pete Carroll's philosophy.

Of course, you can't JUST do those two things. The Seahawks' decision to trade-for and extend Percy Harvin brought me back to an article I wrote on the idea of Constraint Theory in football. I read about this first at Smart Football and wanted to apply it to Seattle's offense, and heres a recap, with some added analysis:

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I was going back and reading through the archives of Chris Brown's Smart Football blog this week and ran across an article called Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense. As I read through it, it kind of struck me how much the Seahawks take the 'constraint theory' and apply it to their offense.

Essentially, constraint plays are those that exist on your playsheet outside of your base, core group of plays. The Seahawks' base offense is, at its core, a wide-zone/tight-zone run game with rather basic shot pass plays and a few essential intermediate WCO-style route concepts meant to move the chains. I read Greg Cosell's weekly film notes over at FantasyGuru.com, and I don't think a week goes by without Cosell noting that the Seahawks pass game 'remains very limited regarding concepts and route combinations.'

Without complexity to hang your hat on, that's where the 'constraint plays' come into play. As Chris Brown explains:

"Constraint plays ... work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter."

The read option, the lead draw, the bubble screen, the bootleg, the screen. These are all 'gimmicks' the Seahawks had been using in a ratcheted-up frequency as the playbook opened for Russell WIlson and as the offense began to execute better. And, in my opinion, seemed to function as their constraint plays once teams geared up to stop Lynch or pressure Russell Wilson.

More from Brown:

"In a given game your offense might look like it is all "constraint" plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so, if that's what the defense deserves. But you can't lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and other gimmicks are your best offense for a couple of weeks doesn't mean that it will be there. Indeed, the best defense against that kind of stuff is simply a sound one. Thus great offenses must be structure around sound, time tested core ideas, but have the flexibility to go to the "constraint plays" whenever the opportunity exists. Too often, the constraint plays are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go."

The Seahawks' offense has begun to become much more effective and efficient and the motor that drives that effectiveness is Marshawn Lynch. The 'sound, time-tested, core idea' is that running the ball is the main part of the Seahawks' offensive identity. Most of the Seahawks' constraint plays are designed to run off of the threat of Marshawn Lynch, so without that core identity, teams wouldn't load up the box, bite on play-action, fly downhill to stop the run, and find themselves susceptible to shot plays, bubbles, bootlegs, draws, etc. What's nice for Seattle is that the offense, toward the end of the year, started to put things all together - the core group of runs and the constraint plays to keep defenses on their heels.

"...A good offense must", per Brown: "(a) find those one or two things on which it will hang its hat on to beat any "honest" defense - think of core pass plays, options, and so on, but also (b) get good at all those little "constraint" plays which keep the defense playing honest. You won't win any championships simply throwing the bubble screen, but the bubble will help keep you from losing games when the defense wants to crush your run game. Same goes for draws and screens if you're a passing team. You find ways to do what you want and put your players in position to win and score."

The bubble screen, along with the read-option - two 'college' style plays - have begun to be what I see as the Seahawks two 'go-to' constraint plays (though, as co-writer Thomas Beekers points out, it would take a lot more in-depth research into defensive tendencies and specific looks to really get into the nuts and bolts of the real 'constraint theory' of offense. Ie, what looks is Darrell Bevell seeing that leads him to make this call? What tendencies are opposing teams exhibiting?). However, basically, the reason these plays - the bubble and the read-option - have become more prevalent? Well, because Seattle is getting much better at executing them. They're joined by their friends, Flea Flicker and Double Pass (also known as Fake End-Around Pass), but the read-option, which Kenny explained here, and the bubble screen, seem to be more integral.

The Seahawks used the bubble with great success against Minnesota in Week 9, for example -- on two consecutive plays early in the 3rd quarter, seen below.

Anthony McCoy and Sidney Rice become lead blockers in space for Golden Tate, and Tate just has to do his thing. Again, here is the overloaded, unbalanced formation the Seahawks really seem to like a lot - a 2TE set built for running out of the huddle, but can be modified toward another end as you come to the line. Here, Anthony McCoy flexes out, and you get a linebacker matched up with Sidney Rice in the slot.

1

At the snap, Tate flares out and back, and Wilson quickly gets him the football. From there, Tate can do what he does best - run with the football in his hands. Amazing that it's taken this long to get him involved like this, really. But again, much is owed to the success of Marshawn Lynch, because 'gimmicky' stuff like bubble screens don't just work consistently on their own merit.

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Of course, it helps that Golden Tate is dynamic with the football in his hands, and he accelerates here through/past five defenders (Tate is hidden behind #50 below).

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Somehow, he comes out unscathed.

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The very next play - why not? Same thing, other side.

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Tate beats one would-be tackler, with the help of Sidney Rice, then puts his running-back cap on and powers forward for a few more yards.

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He picks up 8 yards total on first down, after picking up 13 the play prior. Interestingly enough, the very next play would be a read-option keeper by Wilson. The Seahawks would go on to score a touchdown on the drive, but did so as they went back to their bread and butter - Marshawn Lynch, wide zone. Lynch picked up 23 on a wide zone run out of a two-back set, and carried rookie Harrison Smith about 13 of those yards downfield. He scored three plays later, as the Vikings feared and overplayed an anticipated Russell Wilson bootleg that wouldn't come (remember that?). Constraint plays.

Fast forward Week 10's matchup with the Jets. The Seahawks led 21-7 early in the fourth quarter, and after recovering a Mark Sanchez fumble (courtesy of Richard Sherman), Seattle looked to put the game away, for good.

Two Marshawn Lynch runs (core plays) later, and it's 3rd and 5 from the Jets' 44-yard line. The Seahawks throw their trusty bubble to Golden Tate, which he turns into 13 yards and a first down.

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Via BigTrain21(!!)

You can see Wilson get it to Tate quickly, but Zach Miller isn't quick enough to cut off the downhill-running nickel corner, Ellis Lankster. The 6'5, 255 Miller quickly changes his mindset from being a downfield blocker to being a fullback, and barrels into the 5'9, sub-200 CB. This lead-block knocks Lankster down, Tate hurdles him, and then breaks a David Harris tackle before sneaking downfield for a first down. His set-up spin move out of bounds is nearly as impressive if not for the fact it took him out of bounds.

Which leads me to another of my main points.

Golden Tate is integral to this whole theory of 'constraint plays' because he's a dynamite runner with the ball in his hands. This play above was dead to rights at the line of scrimmage but Tate fought through two on-coming tacklers (three, even) and somehow moved downfield. The same could be said about the plays above. Not any player could have the same type of success on these plays as Tate, and well, we've seen the Seahawks try it with Sidney Rice from time to time (to my everlasting chagrin) and the results are considerably more tepid.

Tate's running back instincts and dynamic change of direction ability make a big difference. Don't even get me started on what Percy Harvin adds to this dynamic.

Going back a few weeks again, back to Tate's touchdown against Minnesota, for example: Just a basic bubble screen, with Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice flanking Tate to the outside. The arrows drawn below indicate the defensive response.

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With a nickelback blitz coming from Tate's defender, the Vikings depend on middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and safeties Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith to crash on Tate and make the tackle.

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Nice downfield blocking, as seen below, by Sidney Rice, and you can see Sanford crash hard downfield to make the tackle on Tate. Tate jukes past him easily.

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That leaves Brinkley and Smith to beat, and Tate puts his inside foot in the ground in one of the most impressive athletic plays I've ever seen, and sneaks past two hard-charging defenders.

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As an aside -- this move takes me back to training camp over the past two years and one of the main things that I had noticed, watching practice live and in person, was Tate's athleticism. Now, you can talk about how 'all NFL players are good athletes', but with Tate, his quickness, foot-speed, and balance always stood out in the crowd, and that's saying something when he's in a crowd with a bunch of 'the elite of the elite' (when you really think about how many other great athletes these players had to beat out just to make it to the League). I dug up some of my comments from the past two years at training camp, as a little historical look at what we all had hoped Tate would develop into.

From 2011's training camp:

"Tate is visibly quicker than any of the other receivers. I'm not necessarily saying he'll outrun them in a straight line footrace, but the dude is shifty. I was watching him run his routes, and (because I used to be a basketball guy, I'll use this analogy) he seems to be a pupil of the Michael Jordan school of offense. Jordan used to say that "you don't go around your defender, you go through him." He didn't mean you literally run him over and fall down into a heap of limbs, but basically you just will yourself past a defender with good footwork and a quick first step (going at him with such speed and force that the defender just can't cope with the first-step). You see receivers trying to step around corners and get shoved out of bounds. You see them try to break up the jam with their arms and get tangled up and slowed down or run out of bounds. What I saw from Tate was quick feet, an explosive cut upfield, and a smooth, natural ease at getting off the jam. That's about as well as I can explain it.

I truly think Tate has otherworldly balance. I just want him to put it all together. And I think he will. The other play that I noticed involving Tate was a sideline comeback route that was hit with good timing. Tate caught the ball near the sideline but instead of running out of bounds he shifted direction ridiculously quickly like a jump stop, back toward the center of the field and beat the corner upfield. It drew some raucous applause."

From 2012:

"As for ... Golden Tate, I would say that it would have to be a toss up between he and Doug Baldwin as to who had the most steady and impressive weekend performance of the receiver group. Tate looks like a man possessed, and grabbed impressive downfield throws several times on deep corner routes against the 2-man coverage soft spot - over the top of the corner and out of the range of the safety. He's shifty at the line and beats press seemingly with ease. He has the Butler 'drives like it's on rails' change-of-direction but is much more physical as a runner and in fighting for the football in the air. I've been reminded that Golden Tate has looked this way in training camp before and that's true, but combined with his strong finish last season, what I'm seeing looks like the probable answer at X-receiver."

Now, with the stills providing a set-up look at the play's nuts and bolts, and my anecdotal impression of Tate's athleticism, watch Tate put his left foot in the ground, take four quick steps and dive into the endzone for a TD. Really quite impressive, and again, integral to this type of play working.

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Via BigTrain21(!!)

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Of course, one of my all-time favorite Seahawks plays was borne on a similar idea of getting the ball to Golden Tate with some space to move. With Seattle trailing 14-10 late in Chicago, with just about 30 seconds remaining and at the 14-yard line, Bevell took a chance by giving Tate the ball in the flats - he had one timeout remaining but wouldn't end up needing it on this drive.

Thinking Seattle might take a shot at the endzone on first down, the Bears' cover-2 focuses in on Braylon's corner route - a great route combination on the chalkboard against this cover-2, by the way - and that leaves Golden Tate with some room to catch the ball and operate. Notice too how Sidney Rice draws coverage from OLB Shea McClellin, a large part due to Seattle's overload to the left. McClellin turns his back to run with Rice, clearing some space in the middle of the field, and the former Boise State Bronco makes a pitiful tackle attempt as Tate jukes his way into the endzone.

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This play had me up and screaming "GO GOLDEN! GO GOLDEN!" at the top of my lungs, in my girlfriend's parents house and probably scared the crap out of them but it's still one of my favorite memories of the whole year. Big Play Tate would strike several more times before the season was over, though.

Week 17, at home against the upstart Rams. 3rd and 5, Seahawks deep in their own territory. Tie ballgame. Big drive. Golden Tate does what he does.

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After Wilson escapes the pocket in the face of pressure, Tate moves up the sideline to give Russ an outlet, then holds on to the floater even while getting swiped at by defender Trumaine Johnson. He then breaks Johnson's tackle attempt. Twice. Then Tate's brought down after picking up an additional 15 yards or so. Huge play for 44 yards. Seahawks score a TD five snaps later to seal the victory.

OH AND FOR SHITS AND GIGGLES EVEN THOUGH WE LOST:

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