Eagle Eye: Who Can Stop Greg Olsen?

Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports Images

Greg Olsen. (USA Today Sports)

Through six games this season, the Eagles have kept opposing tight ends in check.

Only one tight end, New Orleans’ Benjamin Watson, has scored a touchdown, and no tight end has picked up more than 56 yards in a game.

On average, opposing teams’ tight ends are catching six catches for 39 yards and no touchdowns, a favorable stat line for Billy Davis’s defense considering the Eagles have already faced Jacob Tamme, Jason Witten, and Jordan Reed, among others.

Enter Carolina’s Greg Olsen, who is fourth in the NFL in receiving yards with 374 through five games and has turned into Cam Newton’s favorite target with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin sidelined for the season.

Olsen, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 250-pound machine of a veteran who was voted to the Pro Bowl last year, has picked apart opposing defenses for years.

This season, he and Newton have established an impressive rapport. He’s going to be a handful for the Eagles on Sunday.

“[Olsen]’s definitely different [than tight ends we’ve previously faced],” Malcolm Jenkins said Wednesday. “He’s one of the better tight ends in this league, and obviously he’s getting a lot more targets.”

Olsen has 45 targets this year, just a hair under Jordan Matthews’ 9.3 targets per game.

Here’s why.

1. He uses his leverage well

One thing a number of Eagles mentioned when talking about Olsen is his ability to use leverage to his advantage.

“[Olsen] knows how to play in space, he understands leverage, and he does a great job with it,” Jordan Hicks said.

In this first example, Olsen uses his leverage to fight off a defender using physical coverage. Olsen lines up on the left side of the line of scrimmage, with two defenders over him. He’s running a simple in route.

Olsen’s defender engages him as he makes his way up the field, but the way the defender is engaging indicates he expects Olsen to run an out route, because he’s angling his body towards the sideline rather than the middle of the field.

Olsen, who is noticeably larger than the defender, uses this to his advantage, running through the defender until he reaches his release point, when he muscles out of the engagement and breaks towards the middle of the field for a solid chunk of yardage.

2. He has great size and speed

Another thing Olsen does well is simply use his size and skill set to effectively become a wide receiver masquerading as a tight end.

“He runs so many different routes, and he’s always in different positions,” Brandon Graham said. “He’s a receiver, pretty much. We’ve got a handful this weekend as outside linebackers, because I’m sure we’ll have to cover him a couple of times.”

On this play against New Orleans, Olsen is lined up across from a safety. He runs a fly pattern down the seam, where Newton often likes to look for his top target.

When the ball is snapped, the safety tries to engage Olsen at the line of scrimmage, but Olsen is bigger and stronger than the safety, and he quickly slips the bump and gains perfect positioning for his route.

From there, Olsen simply out-runs the safety and makes an impressive, one-handed grab with passable coverage on his back.

3. He runs really clean routes

For all his size and speed, Olsen, now 30 years old, isn’t what he used to be in terms of athleticism. He makes up for a slight decrease in his first-step explosion by running clean routes to get open.

Jenkins called him a veteran who is “savvy, can run routes, and catches well.”

On this third play, Olsen is lined up as a wide receiver across from Richard Sherman. He runs a sort of deep in route with a diagonal cut instead of a horizontal cut.

Olsen executes the route perfectly by convincing Sherman he’s going to be staying outside, leveraging his body towards the sideline. Sherman respects Olsen’s ability to catch an out route in this spot, so when Olsen makes his cut to the middle of the field, Sherman is caught by surprise.

Newton’s throw is a little high, but Olsen brings it in with his sturdy hands, and then picks up plenty of yards after the catch. Carolina scored on the next play.

Against Olsen, the Eagles will look to continue the success they’ve had against game-breaking tight ends, a tall task against one of the best in the business.

But they’re convinced it can be done.

Connor Barwin and Graham were in agreement that the Eagles’ physicality against tight ends has served the defense well.

“I think we’ve been hitting them off the line,” Graham said. “It’s not always a clean release. And then, sometimes, the quarterback just doesn’t have enough time.”

“We have to disrupt the timing of [Olsen’s] route at the line, and then we’ve just got to cover him with different people so he can’t get used to whoever’s covering him,” Barwin said.

For Jenkins, defending a tight end as a safety is a point of personal pride. He takes it personally if a tight end has a solid game.

“As a safety, we’re usually the ones in coverage against tight ends, and you don’t want that guy to have a great day,” Jenkins said. “So we usually do a good job of our technique, matching up well. We’ve got linebackers that line up well when we want to use them in our matchups.

“I just think we match up well. When we want to get into man-on-man and one-on-one, I think we do a good job at it.”