Inconsistent blocking takes luster off Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson's shining start
The first order of business for Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson this season was finding the consistency he lacked as a rookie. From a pass-catching perspective, he's well on his way.
In each of the first three games, Hockenson has caught at least four balls and surpassed 50 receiving yards. It's obviously early, but he's on pace to haul in 70 passes for more than 900 yards and five touchdowns.
Those are the kind of numbers the Lions anticipated when investing a top-10 draft pick in the former Iowa standout.
But a big part of what made Hockenson the right choice for the Lions was they viewed him as a complete tight end. A potentially elite pass-catcher at the position, yes, but also a stellar blocker. That element of his game is still lagging behind to start 2020.
The analytics site Pro Football Focus, which aims to grade every NFL play, ranks Hockenson well below-average in both pass protection and run blocking to start the year. And if you've been paying attention while watching the games, you've seen several plays where Hockenson was beaten by his assignment.
Position coach Ben Johnson believes the ankle that sent Hockenson to injured reserve at the end of last season, and limited his offseason workout routine, is a contributing factor to the tight end's slow start as a blocker.
"Obviously at Iowa, he was really advanced for a collegiate tight end, this day and age coming out and that’s one of his strong suits," Johnson said. "He’s probably not where he was before he got injured last year. We’re still working on some things technique-wise and fundamentally. I do see improvement every week from the guy. There were a couple last week where definitely could’ve done a better job with hand placement and how we fit and sustain. But overall, I like where he’s trending and he’s really gonna help us out here in the run game this week and after the bye week."
When things are clicking for Hockenson as a blocker, it can lead to some big plays for Detroit's ground game. Look no further than Adrian Peterson's first run against Arizona, a 27-yard romp around the left side of the line.
On the carry, Hockenson got his hooks into Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick — another former first-rounder — sealing him outside the play before finishing him to the ground as the running back burst through the lane.
Johnson also offered praise for a wham block that sprung Peterson later in the game.
"He’s so incredibly versatile and able to move through tight spaces that we feel good about putting him in different situations," Johnson said. "What you saw there was him whamming one of the defensive tackles and did a really nice job. The guy came up the field and really kind of made TJ’s job easy just by how the guy penetrated, but (we) feel good about him at the point of attack and being able to sustain both on our wide runs and our tight runs, and then being able to do some things where he’s pulling around the edge out of front of our running backs. I think he does some nice things in space as well.
"We’re trying to keep building on what he does well and I think he keeps getting better," Johnson said. "He’s improving every week and really think the sky’s the limit for him, just based on his overall skill set there in the run game."