Second-year tight end Jordan Reed has been tapped by many to be a breakout candidate for the Redskins this season. Reed impressed with his athleticism and receiving ability and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2013 season. His athleticism allows him to be versatile in where he lines up, making him a matchup nightmare for opponents. Redskins coach Jay Gruden is familiar with athletic, pass-catching tight ends from his time in Cincinnati. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert both had success under Gruden and caused problems for opposing defenses.

The Zebra personnel group (three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back) looks likely to be heavily featured in the Redskins’ 2014 campaign. That allows Washington to get their new free-agent acquisitions Andre Roberts and DeSean Jackson on the field with last seasons three big weapons; Pierre Garcon, Alfred Morris and Jordan Reed. Zebra personnel was one of Gruden’s more effective groups during his time with the Bengals. He made great use of his versatile tight end Gresham to create matchup problems and manipulate the defense. One of his favored tendencies was to line up Gresham outside on his own, with the three receivers to the other side.

Doing this can tell the quarterback a lot about the defense. In this case, we can see that Packers inside linebacker Brad Jones moves outside to cover Gresham. This tells the offense that the defense is likely using man coverage. With that knowledge, the offense can run a route combination on the other side designed to beat man coverage.

The Bengals combine a quick in-breaking route with a corner route from the slot receiver.

The corner route occupies the safety and clears space in behind for the in-breaking route. It’s an easy read and throw for the quarterback and an easy five-yard completion.

But some teams react to a tight end outside differently.

Here, the Steelers leave a corner outside over Gresham. That leaves the inside receiver uncovered, telling the offense that the defense is likely in zone coverage. Add in the knowledge that the Steelers like to use the zone blitz and Cover 3, and the quarterback has a pretty good idea of what the defense is trying to do. Like before, this allows the offense to run a route combination designed to beat the coverage, in this case zone. Cincinnati pairs a seam route with a comeback on the outside.

On the outside, the comeback route creates plenty of separation against a corner covering the deep third of the field. The Steelers should have a corner covering the zone underneath, but he gets pulled away by the seam route, creating space for the comeback route on the outside.

With plays like these, Jordan Reed could be Robert Griffin III‘s best friend without even catching the ball. With creative positioning of the tight end in this personnel group, the quarterback gains so much knowledge about the defense pre-snap, making it a lot easier for him post-snap.

But of course, Reed will get his fair share of catches too. Gruden also liked to line up Gresham in the backfield to hide him from the defense and create confusion over who was assigned to cover him.

This is something Reed has done in the past. He did it with the Redskins last year, and he even took some hand-offs in similar situations in college. With the tight end in the backfield, the defense isn’t sure if he’s staying in to help protect or is going to run a route.

On this play, the Bengals use a seam and dig route to clear the way for Gresham to work in the flat.

The defense has to worry about deeper routes first, allowing Gresham to sneak out of the backfield and into the flat unnoticed.

When he receives the ball, Gresham has plenty of space to run into, making for an easy first down.

Gruden also used this look to run play-action passes.

Here’s Gresham in the backfield again. He’s going to run across the formation out in the flat.

While Gresham runs out to the flat, the rest of the offense fakes a zone run to the right. The linebacker responsible for Gresham gets drawn in on the run fake.

That leaves Gresham open for the quick pass.

Gresham is then able to show off his athleticism after the catch, something Jordan Reed does exceptionally well.

All of these plays so far show how Gruden likes to use his tight end to manipulate the defense and create space on short, easy throws. But Gruden is also willing to use his tight end to stretch the field.

This time, Gresham lines up as a wide receiver in the slot. The Bengals call for four verticals.

The Browns get caught running Cover 2, which is vulnerable to four verticals. As Gresham spots the deep safety moving outside to cover his deep half, he angles his route inside to split the two deep safeties.

The throw isn’t perfect, as Gresham has to slow and turn back towards the ball to pull in the catch. But it’s complete and picks up 26 yards in the process. Reed has more than enough speed to be extremely effective up the seam on plays like these.

Reed looks poised to have a big role in Gruden’s new offense, be it catching the pass or manipulating the defense with his positioning. If Gruden uses Reed in similar ways to how he used Gresham in Cincinnati, Reed could quickly become one of the most important cogs in the Redskins’ offense and make things easier on Griffin.

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins without the benefit of access to the team. 

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