The under-the-radar role of tight end Brandon Pettigrew

Posted Nov 15, 2013

While his role in the receiving game is easy to gauge, Pettigrew contributes greatly as an extension of the Lions' offensive line

Brandon PettigrewTE Brandon Pettigrew (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

Fans in Detroit have a love-hate relationship with tight end Brandon Pettigrew that dates as far back as the day he was drafted.

Selected with the team's second first-round pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, many fans wanted a defensive player or an offensive lineman after the Lions took Matthew Stafford first overall.

Internally, Lions administration and coaches were thrilled Pettigrew fell to them at 20th-overall.


At 6-5 and 263 pounds coming out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew's NFL Combine profile on reads:

"Relegated to blocking throughout much of his early career due to the Cowboys' focus on other playmakers, Pettigrew is more NFL-ready than most recent collegiate tight ends.

"A nagging ankle injury robbed him of the opportunity of breaking out as a senior, but the natural hands, rare athleticism and brute strength demonstrated throughout his career are the traits scouts look for in a complete tight end."

Pettigrew was once again bitten by the injury bug as a rookie when he suffered an ACL injury during the team's Thanksgiving Day game.

He returned in 2010 to start 32 consecutive games, amassing 154 receptions for 1,499 yards and nine touchdowns over that two-year span.

"He is a big human being," said Pettigrew's current position coach, Bobby Johnson. "He's a lot bigger than most receiving tight ends. You’re talking about a guy that's 6-5, 270 pounds, so he’s a big, physical, strong guy.

"He's able to withstand the physical demands of the run blocking, but also he's a very skilled athlete, so that’s why he's still a viable option in the pass game."

Heading into last season, buzz surrounding Pettigrew was that it could be an even bigger year statistically, but it turned out to be an off-year instead.

He admittedly struggled with dropped passes and committed four fumbles after committing zero in 2010 and 2011.

"(I'm) really just trying to get my hands and my feet right and just trying to play within my body frame and not play so loose," said Pettigrew during camp. "When it comes to catching the ball, looking the ball in -- just the little things that help me throughout camp to be on point going out to practice."


To the naked eye, the 2013 season appeared to start slow for Pettigrew. He had just five catches for 38 yards the first two games, losing a fumble in the season opener vs. Minnesota.

Pettigrew's coaches and teammates never wavered on his ability, however.

"He got drilled on that one but he has to do a better job of coming with those and we all know he can," said head coach Jim Schwartz the Monday following the game.

The next week at Washington, Pettigrew had zero targets. It appeared the Lions were going away from their starting tight end in favor of other receivers.

In reality, Pettigrew's other role -- the unnoticed one -- was exploited against the Redskins. That game, starting running back Reggie Bush did not play due to a knee injury suffered the previous week.

Despite his absence, Joique Bell and the Lions running game rumbled at the pace of 4.9 yards per carry in the first half to set the tone and take a 17-14 lead. They went on to win 27-20.

"A lot of my success -- most of my success -- is predicated on what he can do; his ability to go in there and open up holes for me," said Bush. "I appreciate him. I know our offense appreciates him and what he does. Even though a lot of it goes unseen, what he can do, the guys on this team know his value to us."


Since finishing with zero receptions at Washington, Pettigrew has amassed 26 catches for 257 yards and one touchdown.

Brandon PettigrewPettigrew finished with five catches for 70 yards at Chicago. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

He has had three perfect games in which he has caught every pass thrown at him: vs. Chicago (7-of-7), at Cleveland (4-of-4) and at Chicago (5-of-5).

As impressive as that is, perhaps the most impressive part is the role he continues to play in the running game.

"A lot of guys want to be a receiving tight end and a receiving tight end only," said Bobby Johnson. "His attitude really lends itself to being a dual tight end because he's a team-first guy. He's one of few guys that can do this and I think he's highly underrated."

The challenge of playing both roles extends beyond the field on Sundays.

Pettigrew's preparation is twofold. He can't just focus on opponent coverages; he also has to understand the fronts he'll be facing.

Aside from a great attitude, what contributes to Pettigrew's success is his intelligence.

"He's very bright," said Bobby Johnson. "He’s a student of the game. He is a very intelligent football player, so a lot of the adjustments that we put it are not a problem for him. Plus, he's a veteran player, so he kind of understands what defenses are trying to do and knows how to adjust to it."


Last week at Chicago, the Lions' running game played a primary role in the passing game's success. Bush averaged 7.5 yards-per-carry, running 14 times for 105 yards.

"The guy is blocking his tail off," said Stafford on Tuesday. "We’re asking him to do a lot. He’s moving around almost on every play, then when he has matchups in the passing game we’re going to him and he’s answering the bell. He had a big third-down catch for us and then two big chunks in the game.

"He’s a guy that, when he’s playing well and he’s having chunks in the passing game and blocking the way he’s blocking, it sure does help our offense."

Stafford was asked earlier this week if his confidence in Pettigrew has been restored after last year's struggles.

"I never lost it," he said. "I'm going to throw him the ball as much as I can when he has matchups. He's a guy that I trust big-time. I think everybody in our locker room does.

"We see the work that he puts in week-in and week-out. What we're asking him to do, his plate is full. He's doing a great job this year at handling that."