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30 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
Tight ends are the "sexy" position these days. As I examined in my New York Times NFL Evolution piece earlier this year, that will change over the next few seasons. But in the meantime, and particularly in 2012, it’s easy to see why the position is in vogue. The Saints offense ranked first in scoring last season and ran through Jimmy Graham. The Patriots ranked second in scoring going through Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The league’s No. 3 scoring offense, Green Bay, had the über-athletic Jermichael Finley. The No. 5 offense, Detroit, had former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew. The No. 6 offense, San Diego, featured Antonio Gates, while the No. 7 ranked Panthers ran a two-tight end system with former first-rounders Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
Tight ends are playing a prominent role as the NFL morphs into a spread out, pass-oriented, league. It’s not just about the star tight ends, though. With fullbacks nearly extinct, more and more offenses these days are using two tight ends in their base personnel. And that’s where the meat of football’s evolution is taking place -– in two-tight end sets.
Heading into this season, 11 teams figure to run a two-tight end base offense (the Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Colts, Titans, Broncos, Chiefs, Lions, Vikings, Cardinals and Seahawks) and six more –- the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Panthers, Saints and Jaguars -– figure to feature a hearty dose of ace sets. Because these Film Room posts will be analyzing many of these teams in-depth throughout this season, let’s freshen up on the key advantages that dual-tight end sets present for an offense.
Balanced formations. In their purest forms, two-tight end sets are one of the few truly balanced formations in football. With a tight end and wide receiver on each side, defenses are not able to cheat their alignments to a strong or weak side prior to the snap. Individual defenders aren’t quite as informed in making guesses as to which direction the ball might go with this setup. This can make for a subtly simpler defense overall.
Matchup issues. You’ve heard this before, but it leads to the next point. Defensive coordinators have a tough time figuring out how to respond to dynamic receiving tight ends. Do you treat guys like Finley, Tony Scheffler, Graham and Hernandez as wideouts and cover them with a nickel corner? If you do, there’s the risk of the offense lining up both tight ends on the front line and running on one of your floundering cornerbacks who's stuck anchoring at linebacker. If you stay in base personnel, you get stuck with one of your linebackers matched on these lethal receivers.
Formation versatility. Most No. 1 tight ends are athletic enough to split into the slot, making for a three-receiver formation. Most No. 2 tight ends move well enough to line up at fullback or motion out of the backfield, making for a two-back formation. The more dynamic the players, the wider array of formations you see. The Patriots, obviously, are the best example. Hernandez and Gronkowski make for an unpredictable offense simply by being on the field together.
It can go beyond simply kicking one tight end into the slot, too. Last season, the Panthers were phenomenal at creating unique, exploitable passing lanes by putting Olsen and Shockey in plus-splits (lined up outside the numbers). The Lions occasionally lined up Scheffler and Pettigrew on the same side of the field, which complicated the defense’s efforts to double-team Calvin Johnson. Also, as the Patriots showed in Super Bowl XLVI, splitting out two tight ends on the same side can befuddle a defense trying to play matchup zone concepts. No defense wants to play zone with all of its corners to one side and all of its safeties and linebackers to the other. That distorts matchups and defeats many basic principles of zone. The Giants never did figure out how to deal with this formation in the Super Bowl; fortunately for them, there just weren’t enough opportunities for the Patriots to fully exploit it.
In the backfield or tighter to the formation, the Texans last season were very shrewd in the way they used Joel Dreessen and James Casey in motion. This aided the play-action game and created a lot of favorable one-on-one route running opportunities. It also created a lot of advantageous angles for Dreessen and Casey in run-blocking, which is partly why Arian Foster consistently had spacious cut-back lanes behind his zone-blocking.
Two-tight end sets can create an inherent advantage for the offense just through the multiplicity of threats it presents. It’s simple, really. The more versatile the offensive personnel, the more the defense has to think about. The more the defense has to think, the slower it plays.
Presnap adjustments. Flexible personnel makes for more flexibility in changing plays at the line of scrimmage. If a quarterback thinks his four-wide formation is too vulnerable to a blitz that the defense is threatening, he can slide his tight ends back inside to their usual positions and immediately go max protection. By the same token, he could also slide his tight ends to the receiver positions and create more spacing for his hot routes. There are countless wrinkles like these.
Half of quarterbacking takes place in the presnap phase. When you take both protection and route adjustments into consideration, a two-tight end package is by far the most pre-snap-friendly personnel grouping a quarterback can have. What’s more, because tight ends are respectable blocking and receiving threats, there’s more disguise and illusion created when they motion or shift prior to the snap. This flexibility pays dividends in a myriad of ways after the snap.
Helping your limited players. Tight ends are the most effective band-aids in the NFL. If you have a meager-armed quarterback that can’t consistently stretch the field, or more likely, a young passer who is uncomfortable working deep into his progressions, tight ends are the ultimate safety valve. Because they often line up so close to the formation (either on the line or in the tight slot), they have more freedom in the adjustments they can make to their routes. Another benefit that’s often forgotten is in pass protection. Even if you don’t want to keep a tight end in to block, you can still have him chip a defensive end at the beginning of his route. That’s enough to nullify the initial speed and quickness advantage that a quality pass-rusher has over a mediocre offensive tackle. The Saints are the best in the league at this. Their offense wouldn’t function if Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief had to actually block opponents one-on-one for an entire play.
These are all fairly basic concepts. What makes them complicated (from a defensive perspective) is that most tight ends today are capable blockers and receivers. Generally, a tight end specializes in one of those two areas, but most are capable of at least executing in both. Thus, with two tight ends simply being on the field, all of the concepts covered above are simultaneously in play.
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