How Jordan Reed Has Emerged as a Matchup Nightmare Heading into the Playoffs

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How Jordan Reed Has Emerged as a Matchup Nightmare Heading into the Playoffs
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For two seasons Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed offered equal doses of promise and frustration.

He teased with his immense talent, then strained or aggravated something, with that maddening cycle repeating itself. First a concussion shortened his rookie season, a year when he still finished with 499 receiving yards over only nine games. Then quad and hamstring issues robbed him of both his playing time and burst during his second season.

Reed missed 12 games in 2013 and 2014. The result was a career that seemed to surge then sputter.

“It’s just frustrating, man,” Reed told CSN Washington in September 2014 (via Kevin Patra of NFL.com). “It’s just one thing after another.”

If he could stay even somewhat healthy, there was still a belief Reed would put himself among the NFL’s premier tight ends. He’d do it with a rare blend of size and athleticism, all while validating those who believed in the great heights his natural talent could reach.

Which is exactly what Reed did in 2015 when he established new Redskins tight end records and tied for second at his position with 11 receiving touchdowns. It was a season when the frustration Reed produced shifted.

Now, instead of frustrating his own team and fans with injuries limiting his ceiling, Reed is doing the same to opponents by often being uncoverable. He’s given the Green Bay Packers a problem to solve when they meet the Redskins to conclude Wild Card Weekend.

That problem comes in the form of a question, and it can best be illustrated by what Reed did to Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, as shared by former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley. How do you stop a tight end who can turn defenders into bright red pylons?

Reed frequently removed defensive backs from their underpants during a year when he broke the Redskins' single-season records for tight end receptions and yards. He finished with 87 catches for 952 yards, even though the 25-year-old didn’t entirely shake his brittle past and still missed two games.

If you’re wondering how long it’s been since the Redskins have had a red-zone presence on Reed’s level, there’s a definitive answer: 48 years. That’s the last time a Redskins tight end logged 11-plus touchdown receptions, according to Bryan Frantz of 106.7 The Fan.

Reed is white-hot entering the playoffs, with five of his touchdowns coming over Washington’s final four games. He tacked on another 45 yards to his total in Week 17 during just one half before being benched for the remainder of a meaningless game. In the three games prior to that he really went kaboom, logging 25 receptions for 333 yards.

The third-round pick in 2013 also recorded eight-plus receptions in a game four times this season, along with four multitouchdown games. Need more dazzling and/or historic numbers? As Frantz noted, Reed is now the only player in Redskins history to post 10-plus touchdowns and 75-plus receptions in a single season.

Alright, so you have plenty of statistical evidence showing Reed’s dominance to gnaw on. Let’s return to exactly what that looks like on the field, and why defending the 237-pound tight end who stands 6’2” usually isn’t an enjoyable experience.

Even when he doesn’t get a ball thrown his way Reed can introduce defensive backs to the ground with his nimble feet. Mark Bullock of the Washington Post provided an example: 

He’ll be juking and tap dancing Sunday against a Packers defense that allowed 55.5 yards per game to tight ends throughout the regular season, according to Football Outsiders, which tells only a partial story.

Some darkness is revealed when we look a little closer at how the Packers fared against top-tier tight ends. Reed was one of only seven players at his position to finish the regular season with 850-plus receiving yards (he ranked fifth). The Packers faced two other hulking pass-catchers in that group, and the results were less than encouraging.

Packers against premier tight ends
Tight end Receptions Yards Yards/rec Longest catch TDs
Greg Olsen 4 66 16.5 24 1
Travis Kelce 6 80 13.3 38 0

Source: NFL.com

Much Like the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, Reed presents a difficult matchup puzzle to solve. His 4.72 speed in the 40-yard dash allows him to function as an oversized slot receiver who is large enough to win battles in traffic, but not so massive that it subtracts from his ability to work the deep and intermediate areas of the field, too.

So should a defensive coordinator counter Reed's size with a safety or linebacker, or focus on his speed with a cornerback? There isn’t a correct answer.

His game film from 2015 is dotted with examples of defensive backs and linebackers who are ready for a sudden burst in either direction. But failure still greets them even when they have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.

A 28-yard reception in Week 14 against the Chicago Bears serves as another example of why trying to trail Reed closely in the open field requires some quick twitching. It’s also hard for anyone prone to sudden bouts of whiplash.

The play came late in the first quarter when Reed found himself in a familiar situation: He was isolated one-on-one, with the middle of the field—his favorite playground—wide-open.

Reed is often moved throughout the formation and shifted to create opportunities down the middle, with Redskins head coach Jay Gruden leaning on play action to freeze linebackers, removing them from the coverage equation.

In this case he was offset to the left. See that yellow square? It became Reed’s final destination with the safety dropping back deep and the linebackers having to respect quarterback Kirk Cousins’ play fake:

Credit: NFL GamePass

He went to work with those slippery feet.

First, Reed stutter stepped and dipped his shoulder. Bears safety Adrian Amos was already leaning in the wrong direction. Then the exclamation point came—a hard plant by Reed to the left:

Credit: NFL GamePass

Amos had no choice but to buy what Reed was selling. The former Florida Gator standout was charging hard with his quick burst off the line of scrimmage. If that outside move wasn’t a false one, Amos would be cooked.

Of course, he was done either way. The slightest lean can end in doom against Reed:

Credit: NFL GamePass

With Amos staggered, Reed cut hard toward that sacred golden square. That's when Cousins saw a common sight: Reed bounding toward nothing but green grass, waiting on the other end for a routine pitch and catch.

The connection between Cousins and Reed has grown steadily. When targeting Reed 10-plus yards up the middle, Cousins has a passer rating of 158.3, according to Pro Football Focus. Then there’s Reed’s hot stretch to conclude the season, when Cousins completed 25 of the 27 passes he threw at his tight end, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Reed has grown into a walking mismatch, which is exactly what we all imagined he would become if his body stayed in one piece for any length of time. A healthy Reed seemed like a mythical unicorn that lived only in our wildest childhood daydreaming.

Now that dream has become reality, and Reed is ready to cause playoff chaos.

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