December 2016 – Nik Lewis – Waggle End

The ENTIRE point of the tight-end position is to add BIG bodies to the offensive-line and protection of your quarterback, while sacrificing NOTHING in the way of targets for your quarterback to throw to. As the CFL struggles with a veritable PLAGUE of injuries to the MOST important star of EVERY team, might it NOT be time to re-examine the role of the tight-end in the modern CFL offense?

At some point, buried in the mists of time…LONG before years of self abuse and the death of COUNTLESS brain cells…I played a bit of football. Tight-end of all things. From my point of view, and I suppose from the point of view of those who follow some of the GREAT NFL players at the position, “tight-end” is a DEAD element in the CFL game.

I can’t really remember when it happened. As far as I know there was no announcement, pronouncement or rule change that preceded this demise. One day Nick Aracgi was carrying on the heady Alouettes tight end tradition of Peter Dalla Riva, among others. The NEXT day the position was debagged, defrocked or otherwise deceased.

A couple months ago I proposed a renaissance at the position…with Nik Lewis leading the charge. At first the thought MAY admittedly have been a knee-jerk reaction to the comic stylings of Jacob Ruby and his O-line Keystone Cops. The Alouettes needed to get creative if our quarterbacks were to survive the season, I thought. What could we DO…in the face of a GM who seemingly had NO INTENTION  of ever upgrading our QB protection? Eureka! Tight-ends! Let me hit ONE guy coach…ONCE. GOD let me play tight-end again. Hey…I met Anwar Stewart in the off-season. I could take him. Erm…

While at 5’10”, Thick Nik may NOT have the requisite vertical dimensions of a tight end…his blocking abilities are without equal, as are his skills as a BIG possession receiver, who can BLOW over a defender OR carry an ENTIRE defensive squad on his back for a 1st down….completing a skill-set that many consider to be the bedrock of the “traditional” tight end position.

I decided to analyze Nik Lewis’ game this year with the Alouettes. How does it differ from the “normal” game of a tight end? How is it similar? Does the tight end position STILL exist in some form in the CFL? If so, how is it used? And how can that utilization be improved…and WHY should it be?

I managed to download an early 2016 Alouettes win over Saskatchewan…on the day Ben Cahoon’s number was retired, and placed on the wall of honour at Molson Stadium. Lewis may NOT quite possess Cahoon’s golden digits…but I hope to show EXACTLY what his MASSIVE skill-set can do for this team. And how we could all benefit, even Lewis himself, from a revamping of a position that once was an INTEGRAL element in the Canadian game, and for much of it’s history.

Traditionally the tight end is a “hybrid” position, sharing the duties of an offensive lineman and an inside receiver. A tight end needs to be BIG enough to block a defensive end, quick enough to react and block blitzing linebackers and defensive backs…tall enough to go up for a reception over a linebacker, have soft enough hands to be a reliable possession receiver, and have an outright DESIRE for contact, to break tackles and generally be the HAMMER and not the nail.

A tight end lines up on the line of scrimmage, mostly…adding his bulk to the O-line duties of protecting the quarterback, and participating in blocking schemes on running plays. As does a running back, after the tight end either makes his block, or realizing that he has NO blocking responsibilities on the play, releases and runs some short or medium set route, OR finds a hole in the zone and “sits down”…providing a “release option” for his quarterback.

In the following sequence, we see Lewis performing the typical “protection” duties of a normal tight end, but with the addition of a waggle: taking a couple strides before the snap. Lewis WIPES out the defensive end, then releases as the primary receiver and catches a 1st down pass from a grateful Kevin Glenn:

I suppose an advantage of the “waggle” formation for an inside receiver, is that he has the option to stay in the backfield, providing QB protection for any outside rush. You don’t see it that often…but the option is there. HERE we see Lewis doing this…releasing as no rush ensues on his side, and then providing an outlet option for a “scrambling” Glenn…who was unfortunately WAY over the line of scrimmage:

Sadly for us…wiping out the defensive end is “optional” for Nik Lewis. A true tight-end has a blocking responsibility and assignment. If he misses it, he’s to blame and the quarterback may be sacked. If Nik Lewis decides to leave the outside rusher unimpeded, since it’s naturally the responsibility of the tackle on that side anyways…well I guess that’s his prerogative. Unfortunately…THIS season…MORE often than NOT…THIS is what ended up happening:

Of course, just like the running back, a tight-end needs to be aware enough to pick up the blitz. Every BIT as important as having the tight-end “release” off the line to become a receiver used to be an IMPORTANT last minute option:

Sometimes, just for the sake of mixing things up, a tight end WILL simply run a pass route like everyone else. As Ben Cahoon is being interviewed we see Lewis do just that on a simple curl:

The tight-end position does of course exist in the CFL. However, it is a “shell” of it’s former self…and in some ways, a liability. In this sequence, we see Beaulieu, (listed on the Roster as a fullback) lining up as a tight end on the left side of the line next to Jacob Ruby. For reasons that will be explained later, the addition of a tight-end generally tells the defence to expect a running play. If only one tight-end is present, expect the running play to that side. In THIS situation, the tight-end is not a hybrid position, but has the SOLE task of run-blocking on the play. AND if the tight-end NEVER catches a pass out of this alignment. the defence KNOWS what to expect:

“Double-tights” refers to an alignment of two tight-ends, BOTH on the line, outside of each offensive tackle. Assuming a running play, the defence need ONLY swarm to the flow of the ball, assuming the offence doesn’t take one of it’s precious backs to run some misdirection in the backfield.

I say PRECIOUS, because as you ADD bodies on the line in the form of unidimensional tight-ends in protection of your QB, you REMOVE bodies as potential targets FOR your quarterback. In this next sequence we see what TYPICALLY happens in this situation, and why teams generally DON’T pass out of the double-tight formation:

As a consequence…the addition of tight-ends to the alignment, or their lack, is a pretty good “tell” for the well-informed defensive coordinator. For instance, I wouldn’t call a blitz against double-tights. Sit back in the zone, and enjoy having twice the guys in coverage as offensive targets.

If the Alouettes DO have a player resembling a classic tight-end, in inclination as much as in dimension…it’s Jean-Christophe Beaulieu. At 6’3″, 220lbs ex-Sherbrooke star Beaulieu is listed as a fullback. Hate to tell you JC…but at 6’3″ 220lbs YOU ARE a CFL tight-end.

In the first play in this clip Beaulieu releases out of the backfield for a NICE, typical fullback play. While it happens EXCEEDINGLY rarely…we’re fortunate enough to have an example of a “traditional” tight-end sequence in this game. The 2nd play succeeds MORE from it’s unexpectedness than from anything else. But the surprise of having a “lineman” release and join the ranks of the quarterback’s passing options is a “surprise” that has been fooling defenses for decades. May it NEVER stop doing so:

Another element, not only for a tight end but ANY receiver worth his salt, is blocking down field for your fellow receivers or backs. If there’s a BETTER down field blocker than Nik Lewis in the CFL I’d like to see him. The man is STILL a beast:

FINALLY…I only started watching this game because I heard Cato describe his TD pass to Duron Carter and I wanted to see it again. As so often happens, Lewis is in the backfield, helping provide the young quarterback the time to throw a bomb to the endzone.. Figured I might as well show it…since I’m here:

Football is unique in this fact: ALL body types have a home in the game. Plus Sized and 150lb weaklings are all welcome…as long as you have the skills. Unfortunately MY body type is somewhat of an exception in this MODERN CFL. Tall, quick, fast-ish players with medium-BIG builds and good hands define the tight-end archetype. With the position all but extinct in this game, tight-ends have to find some other way to make a contribution: HELL…I knew I should have said “quarterback”. Dang. Redundant. As the Brits like to say:

At least in my day I NEVER had to switch to defence. BLECH. As far back as I can remember…I used to tell anyone who would listen that having the ball in my hands was like having an EXTRA engine. Just TRY and stop me. Whether it was a friendly game of pick-up tackle, or full pads and arseholes…my ONLY desire was to PUNISH anyone who tried to stop me. If you’re in doubt as to what I mean, check Bear Woods’ reaction to Beaulieu’s first play. The ENTIRE Alouettes sideline is in stitches.

But I’ll take the guys who’re as riled up as old Bear. The man is as single-minded as my hunting dog…may he roam FOREVER in that great hunting ground in the sky. That hound would positively SHAKE at point, his passion at WAR with his training and my will…the ENTIRE time I knew him.

Give me a TEAM of Nik Lewis’ AND Bear Woods’ OR the PASSION of my old hound dog…and I’ll give you a Championship.

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