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TJ Hockenson's route running has turned him into Josh Dobbs' best weapon
The Vikings' Pro Bowl tight end has put up big numbers since his new QB arrived
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN — In his explosive first half against the New Orleans Saints, Josh Dobbs seemed to have a pretty simple plan: Throw the ball to TJ Hockenson.
In the first 30 minutes of the Minnesota Vikings’ 27-19 win, Hockenson caught 10 passes for 128 yards and added a touchdown. In doing so, he became the first tight end in NFL history to reach 10 receptions, 120-plus yards and a touchdown in a half.
His biggest plays during that breakout 30 minutes can be attributed to his route running and quick chemistry with Dobbs.
Two plays in particular shined when it came to Hockenson’s route running technique. With the Vikings up 10-3 at the New Orleans 36-yard line, the Pro Bowl tight end found himself isolated against a Saints safety. He accelerated off the line of scrimmage as if he was going to run a vertical route and then broke open across the middle of the field. Dobbs found him in stride for a 21-yard gain that set up Dobbs’ scramble touchdown.
Hockenson made it look routine but there are years of development that went into mastering the footwork to get that wide open against an NFL safety — and a little dash of instincts for the game mixed in.
On Thursday, Hockenson explained that when he was with the Detroit Lions their current offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was the tight ends coach. Johnson had previously worked with receivers in Miami and used tape of receiver Jarvis Landry to explain some of the different ways that he could go into his breaks at the top of the route. He said that O’Connell has built on those ideas and he has worked on selling different looks to the defender in order to create enough separation for the quarterback to get the ball to him.
On the successful crossing route, Hockenson knew the technical elements that he needed to use because he spotted something earlier in the game from the same safety that he beat on the 21-yard catch. He descried a play where he “dove” too much into a route and took note of the way the safety reacted. He gave him the same look and then broke inside rather than outside and the safety went flying back.
“You learn about guys throughout the game and how they are going to cover you and how they think,” Hockenson said. “Once you get in that groove it’s a lot easier to understand what’s going to win and what’s not.”
Hockenson put the cherry on top of his big game against the Saints at the end of the first half when he caught a 28-yard touchdown.
The play was particularly unique because you do not often see Hockenson — or any tight end for that matter — flying down the field on a deep post route. It was just his third target of the year on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air and only his fourth such reception in the last two years (per PFF).
It turns out that wasn’t a normal route that Hockenson usually runs. That assignment usually belongs to Justin Jefferson.
“The touchdown last week is a route that only he has ran in the last year,” Hockenson said. “We were able to talk about what. What do you see here? What do you feel? How do you lean that guy? How do you stick that guy? How do you release on this? Stuff like that. That’s been super helpful.”
While Jefferson has been out with a hamstring injury, Hockenson has regularly used him as a route-running resource.
“A lot of the time I’m under 10 or 15 yards trying to exploit the linebackers or safeties so to be a little more of a deeper threat has been fun,” Hockenson said. “Bouncing things off [Jefferson] has been nice.”
Dobbs explained after the game what he saw on Hockenson’s touchdown.
“T.J. did a good job of getting vertical and running to that open area,” Dobbs said. “Because it’s tough. The Mike [linebacker] has to run back there, he’s got the middle of the field, two safeties. They’re usually in that defense to prevent you to take shots, especially down the seam. So for him to be open, get into that little seam, and for me to put the ball over, it was a huge play.”
Since Dobbs arrived in Minnesota, Hockenson has 18 catches on 26 targets for 204 yards. He’s lined up all over the field, with 34 routes being run from the slot and 11 from the outside receiver position over the last two weeks. O’Connell said that he creates an instant trust factor with quarterbacks because of his attention to detail.
“I think it is just that feeling of ‘I am going to be where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there, and you can rely on me,’” O’Connell said.
That trust factor also comes into play when things break down. One of Hockenson’s biggest plays of the day came on a Dobbs scramble where the quarterback drew Hockenson’s defender toward him and then lobbed the ball over the defensive back’s head to his tight end.
“You can read demeanor on the field,” Hockenson said. “When I see him go out of the pocket scrambling, if his eyes are downfield and I can see him I know there’s an opportunity or he will look at me and do something else and I’m like OK I’ll go block. There’s a demeanor in that. I have tried to just stay open and find voids for him because he’s a threat with his arm and his legs. When he can use both he’s really dynamic and it’s fun to play with.”
As the Vikings head to play the Broncos, it remains unclear whether Jefferson will return to the field. Either way, Hockenson should have another opportunity to put up numbers. The Broncos have allowed nearly 70 yards per game to opposing tight ends, including two 100-plus yard games.
“Definitely happy to have him on our side,” Dobbs said of his tight end.