When the Carolina Panthers take the field against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, there will be a lot of talent on the field at the tight end position. Greg Olsen is one of the best receiving tight ends in the league and Vernon Davis is probably the best all-around player at the position outside of Rob Gronkowski. Those players are great, but the Panthers’ Ben Hartsock may be the most vital to the outcome of the game.
Hartsock hasn’t caught a pass all season—he hasn’t even been targeted, actually—but Pro Football Focus has graded him as the top tight end in the league, based largely (OK, entirely) on his run-blocking. That might be more of a condemnation of the site’s grading system than a commendation for Hartsock, but the former Ohio State Buckeye has been a key to the Panthers’ running game in 2013.
Hartsock has played 222 snaps this season and gone out for a pass only 35 times. Of his 187 snaps spent blocking, only 41 have been on passing plays (some of which were undoubtedly packaged plays with a run/pass option), so when Number 84 is in the game for the Panthers, it’s usually a run.
But Hartsock is so good at run-blocking, it doesn’t matter that the defense knows it’s coming. By Pro Football Focus’ standards, Hartsock didn’t have a great game in the Panthers’ 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons—although a decent effort, his 0.6 Run Block grade was his third-worst this season—he made a number of impressive blocks to open up holes for Panthers rushers.
On this play, Hartsock is responsible for sealing off his man on this power run for Jonathan Stewart. Lined up across from him is Jonathan Babineaux (95), one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL over the last couple of years. But Hartsock gets the better of him and clears out a nice running lane for Stewart to run through.
The Falcons defense had the right call against this next play, but Hartsock’s ability turns it into a positive gain. The Panthers call a Wham run, where they’ll leave the defensive tackle, Peria Jerry (94), unblocked initially before Hartsock blindsides him with a block. But Jerry stunts to his left and linebacker Paul Warrilow (55) fills the vacated gap. Hartsock adjusts at the last second and makes a good block to open up a hole for the running back.
On this last play, we get to see Hartsock play to the whistle as he keeps defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi stone-walled for the entire play.
In what figures to be a physical battle on the line against the 49ers, Hartsock will play a key role blocking the likes of NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. The Panthers will most likely try to pound the ball against a surprisingly leaky San Francisco run defense, and Hartsock will be leading the way.