Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Oct 2006

Too Deep Zone: Running with Multiple Tight Ends

by Mike Tanier

During the off-season, Football Outsiders has a feature called Strategy Minicamps, a discussion of basic and advanced football tactics to help you survive long, hot, football-less days. It's proved to be a big hit -- it turns out fans really are interested in football strategy, not just guys getting "jacked up."

While Minicamp was in full swing, we received several letters asking for breakdowns of offensive plays that use multiple tight ends. The Cowboys and Patriots now use a base two-tight end set, and teams like the Redskins and Buccaneers consistently use multi-tight end formations, even on traditional passing downs. Readers wanted to know what advantages offenses gained from such formations, and a few readers specifically asked that we focus on the running game.

This week, we finally examine those two- and three-tight end formations. But this is not a leftover Strategy Minicamp from July. Instead of relying on coaching manuals and other sources, we scoured game tape from the past few weeks to find prime examples of multi-tight end strategies in action. This week, we'll focus on the running game. Two weeks from now, we'll look at the passing attack.

An Overview

The modern two-tight end set was developed by Joe Gibbs and his Redskins staff in the early 1980s. It was created as a countermeasure against 3-4 defenses in general and Lawrence Taylor in particular. Gibbs discovered that an extra tight end on the line of scrimmage was in better position than a fullback to stop Taylor and other elite blitzers. Gibbs soon learned to use the second tight end as an all-purpose blocker: that extra tight end (usually Don Warren, back in the day) might go in motion before the snap to unbalance the offensive line, or he might slip into the backfield as a fullback or sneak into pass patterns. The modern H-back was born.

The two-tight end base offense enjoyed a brief 80s heyday, with the Redskins, Chargers, and a few other teams using it as their standard package for a few seasons. When the West Coast Offense came into vogue, fullbacks made a resurgence. Most teams had a two-tight end package in their playbooks, but it was a short-yardage formation or a wrinkle: few teams drafted and built around a two-tight end philosophy.

The recent return of the H-back and the two-tight end set can partially be credited to comebacks by the 3-4 defense and by Gibbs. But it is also an adjustment to the personnel that is currently available. Colleges send the NFL plenty of quality tight end prospects every year, most of them top athletes who are able to run, block, and catch. Meanwhile, most college fullbacks are slow-footed lead blockers. Pro coaches need the versatility that the tight ends provide, and multi-tight end sets allow them to mass as many as four eligible receivers near the line of scrimmage. Those extra tight ends give coaches plenty of options in the passing game. But as we'll see, two-tight end sets can also be very efficient when running the ball.

Cowboys Toss Sweep

Two-tight end sets place seven blockers on the line of scrimmage. Most defenses operate on a base 4-3 scheme. A seven-on-four battle in the trenches puts the defense at a severe disadvantage. When possible, defensive coordinators move one or more linebackers down to the line of scrimmage to create a 50 front when facing a multi-tight end formation. The seven-on-five matchup gives the defense a fighting chance.

But against some teams, it's just not wise to put an extra defender on the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys have two of the best wide receivers in football, and opposing defenses need all available bodies in pass coverage. Bill Parcells and his assistants know that they can pick up easy yardage on the ground by executing simple plays while the defense is on its heels.

Figure 1 shows a standard toss sweep as executed by the Cowboys against the Titans. The wide receivers and secondary aren't shown; Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn are flankers on either side of the formation, the cornerbacks are about seven yards off them, and the safeties are out of the television frame. The three linebackers are about five yards deep. Thanks to the threat created by Glenn, Owens, and the receiving ability of their tight ends, the Cowboys have a numbers advantage on the line of scrimmage.

Figure 1: Cowboys Toss Sweep

At the snap, two Cowboys linemen pull left to lead block: center Andre Gurode and left guard Kyle Kosier. The tight ends neutralize the Titans ends: Jason Witten (left side) seals off Travis LaBoy, while Anthony Fasano reach blocks Kyle Vanden Bosch. Right guard Marco Rivera cut-blocks his defender (probably Albert Haynesworth), allowing right tackle Marc Colombo to loop into the backside A-gap. Colombo's first responsibility was probably to stop any defender shooting the gap on this slow-developing play, but no Titans defender attacks from the inside. Colombo is free to roam about the second level.

The Titans linebackers are quick to react to the sweep, but they aren't in good position to make a stop. David Thornton is smothered by Gurode at the line of scrimmage, and Julius Jones is able to turn upfield before Chris Hope makes a tackle along the sidelines. Jones gains just five yards, but they are five yards that are available just about any time the Cowboys line up with two receivers and two tight ends.

This is a simple play, and it could easily be run from any number of formations. When a team executes a toss sweep from an I-formation with one tight end, the defense can cheat toward the strong side, perhaps by placing a linebacker just outside the tight end or allowing the weakside linebacker to shoot an interior gap. But on this play, the weakside linebacker has coverage responsibilities on Anthony Fasano, and the Titans can't guess the direction of the play before the snap. It's hard to see on the game film, but it appears that the Titans cheat slightly toward the wrong side of the field on this particular play. The linebackers are slanted toward the offensive right side, where Fasano (the bigger tight end) and Owens (the bigger receiver) are stationed. The two-tight end set not only allows teams to mass blockers at the line of scrimmage, but it allows them to disguise the direction of a play.

Pulling the Play-Side Tackle

When we think of blockers pulling on sweeps, we usually think of pulling guards. Tackles rarely pull, especially to their own side of the formation. After all, if the left tackle pulls left, he's opening up a hole on the play side of a run. That usually won't work.

But if two tight ends are aligned on one side of the formation, it's possible for the tackle on that side to pull and lead a sweep. With two players available to down-block, it's harder for a defender to slice through the hole to break up a play.

Figure 2: Patriots Pull Tackle

Figure 2 shows the play-side action on Lawrence Maroney's second-quarter touchdown against the Bengals. The Patriots have two tight ends and two running backs on the field; the lone receiver is split wide right and out of the picture. This is a power running formation, and the Bengals respond with an eight-man box (the weakside defensive end is not shown). Note that the Bengals crowd two linebackers over the Patriots tight ends. The Patriots aren't afraid to throw from this formation, so the Bengals must risk a blocking mismatch if they hope to defend the pass.

At the snap, Dan Graham, the interior tight end, down-blocks defensive end Justin Smith. Ben Watson, at H-back, steps off the line and seals off the linebacker on the line of scrimmage (probably Landon Johnson). This is a typical two-tight end blocking scheme. Left tackle Matt Light provides the wrinkle: he pulls left, loops around Watson and Graham, and logs linebacker Brian Simmons.

Light makes a great block, but it wouldn't have been possible without excellent play in the backfield. Fullback Heath Evans and Maroney both attack the line of scrimmage aggressively with their first steps. Evans appears to be blocking off guard, and Maroney appears to be headed into that hole. The inside action freezes Simmons and other Bengals defenders. By the time Evans and Maroney bounce the play to the outside, Simmons is a sitting duck, and Evans engages the safety well down the field. Maroney scores an easy six.

Here's a variation on the pulling tackle sweep, this one adapted from a play the Redskins used against the Giants. We'll draw this play up as a three-tight end formation with a fullback, although that's not quite what the Redskins used. The "tight end" split left in the diagram is really receiver James Thrash, the Redskins' best blocking wideout. His split is relatively tight, and he's used as a blocker on this play, so we'll convert him for illustrative purposes.

Figure 3: Redskins 3-TE Sweep

Pre-snap, H-back Chris Cooley goes in motion to the left side. This essentially places three blockers to that side, plus the fullback. Two Redskins linemen pull on this play: left tackle Chris Samuels and center Casey Rabach. Cooley blocks the linebacker covering him. Thrash ignores the defender covering him and heads out to the second level to engage a safety.

The actual design of the play probably called for Samuels to lead block in the hole while fullback Mike Sellers kicked out any defender who penetrated the backfield (most likely the cornerback covering Thrash). On this play, however, the Giants cornerback makes a great read and penetrates quickly. Samuels pancakes him, but the Giants are able to string out the play. Rabach is able to block a defender in the hole, but Sellers must chip Cooley's defender before lead blocking. The Giants execution is very good, but the Redskins' design is better. Clinton Portis, a patient runner, knows that he has a convoy of blockers, that the wide defender was crushed by Samuels, and that Thrash has slowed down any approaching safeties. He doesn't turn upfield until he's practically out of bounds, but by then he has a wall of blockers. He walks the tightrope for an eight-yard gain.

Left tackles are usually the best blockers on the field. Any play design that allows them to get out into open space and lead block is worth keeping in the playbook.

Patriots Two-TE Draw

If a team passes frequently from a two-tight end set, they create opportunities for effective draw plays and delays from that personnel package. Coaches get the best of both worlds: a convincing formation to sell the pass action, but plenty of blockers to open holes for the running back.

Figure 4 shows the blocking scheme for a 25-yard Patriots touchdown against the Bengals. On first-and-10, the Patriots lined up in a "flip" formation left. This formation, which places two tight ends to one side with the inside tight end a yard behind the line of scrimmage, is becoming very popular in the NFL. It essentially hides an eligible receiver on the interior line, making it easy for that player (usually a tight end, but sometimes a wide receiver) to beat zone coverage by getting lost in the midfield chaos. To counter the flip formation, the Bengals lined up end Justin Smith over interior tight end Daniel Graham. On a typical pass play, Graham would be forced to chip Smith before running his route, breaking up the route's timing.

Figure 4: Patriots 2-TE Draw

The play starts out like a pass. Left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins drop and set to create a pocket. Outside tight end Ben Watson starts a pass pattern. Graham appears to take on blitz pickup responsibilities. The pass action works perfectly: this is a draw play, and the Patriots want the Bengals defenders to sell out on their pass rush. Smith and the defensive tackle take the bait as Lawrence Maroney, feigning pass protection at the snap, prepares to take the handoff.

Now, here's the beauty of the flip formation. A second after the snap, Graham loops behind Light and Mankins and serves as a lead blocker for Maroney. Linebacker Brian Simmons reads the running play relatively quickly, but he's engulfed by Graham. Watson effectively freezes linebacker Caleb Miller, who initially backpedaled into pass coverage. As soon as Miller reacts to the handoff, Watson has him blocked. The pass-blocking action took the Bengals defensive line out of the play, and the two tight ends neutralized the linebackers. Maroney finished the job, running the ball inside Mankins' block, bouncing left behind Watson, breaking tackles, and benefiting from a key block by Troy Brown on a safety en route to the end zone.

Graham's execution on the play wasn't perfect; he nearly tripped over Light as he worked inside. But he acted as the lead blocker on a play that wouldn't have worked if there were a fullback on the field, as the extra blocker in the backfield would have alerted defenders to the run threat and changed their keys.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are hundreds of ways to exploit the presence of an extra tight end. They can give the offense a numbers advantage at the line of scrimmage, force a defense to guess the direction of the play, go in motion to mass blockers at the point of attack, extend the offensive line to allow play-side tackles to pull, or loop inside to block inside on delays or draws. And these example are drawn from just a few hours of tape study.

Of course, the real fun begins when guys like Witten, Watson, and Cooley start running pass patterns. In a few weeks, we'll revisit multi-tight end formations, but we'll skip the smashmouth tactics and take to the air.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 20 Oct 2006

35 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2006, 2:14pm by Alan C.

Comments

1
by Diane (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 4:30pm

Great stuff ... thank you Mike!

2
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 4:49pm

Don't ignore the impact of adding an 8th gap for a gap control defense to worry about when defending the run. Two TEs means 8 gaps. In a 2 FL, 2 TE, 1 back formation the offense presents 4 quick receivers (i.e. on the LOS or only a step off) and 8 gaps. It is just about impossible to cover 8 gaps and 4 quick receivers with 11 defenders, if you use a defense that employs 1-gap techniques.

3
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 4:59pm

Very cool. The diagrams are very helpful.

So how do teams defeat two-TE sets? Are you going to do a similar but defense-focused set of articles? For example, was it simply personnel, or does Denver do something very well in design that Cincinnati did not, which lead to all those Patriots rushing yards against the Bengals but few against the Broncos?

4
by Kal (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 5:03pm

Every time I read these, I hear Jaws' voice saying this stuff. It's like the written version of NFL Live.

This kind of analysis is great to read. I really wish y'all could do this on a per-week basis, picking out a few key plays from the prior week and highlighting them. For instance, seeing the setup on the flanker screen for the Chicago/Arizona game that seemed to work so well early would be awesome.

5
by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 5:13pm

This drives home to me that the Patriots have to hurry up and use some of that cap space to get Dan Graham signed to an extension. Good run-blocking TE's that are also fast and run good pass routes, and that know the system and work smoothly with the other players, don't grow on trees.

6
by BillWallace (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 5:16pm

It's like, having a guy (TE) who can block and also catch passes is really cool, so why not have two instead of one?

7
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 5:19pm

5:

Graham's agent told told the Herald that they are likely to want to wait until the offseason to negotiate with the Patriots. Which I take to mean, they want to leave. Patriots might franchise him though.

But I think the Patriots also have a couple reservationsabout a big deal for him: (1) he's had a few tough drops along the way and (2) he's had durability, especially shoulder, problems. If they are satisfied with those issues, I'd guess they will franchise him, at least until they see if Watson, Thomas, or Mills can step up as a blocker.

8
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 6:04pm

MJK,

I think what MT was getting at, was that at this point, there are more good Tight Ends out there than are being used. The fullback has been in vogue, so good blocking TEs are relatively cheap.

Its similar to NE with the 3-4 5 years ago, it was out of vogue, so players to fill it were cheaper/easier to aquire, than they should have been.

I think the Pats know that Graham isnt coming back, which is why they drafted David Thomas and Garret Mills this year. They also have 2 first round picks next year, one of which may end up being used on a TE.

9
by Nathan (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 7:07pm

The thing is, there are many ways to exploit many different formations with many different types of personel.

This isn't limited to the 2 Tight End set, but the advantage is clear.

The 3-4 is deadly because you have the possibility of 2 edge rushers, and you don't know which one might rush. So you must assign 2 blockers to the 2 possible edge rushers, or leave a vunerable side.

Having a 2 TE set avoids this (why the Colts are using it, in prep for a 3-4)

You can use your TE's as edge blockers if needed, or go into Pass Patterns if the Rush doesn't come.

Against a 4-3, I'd argue there are better ways to attack the field than 2 TE, but every formation has interesting things you can do.

10
by Don Bashline (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 8:22pm

Are those strategy minicamp articles still acessible?

11
by Xian (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 8:46pm

#10, go up to Archives on the menu bar across the top, and there is a section for Strategy Minicamps. Also, the search feature usually gets the job done too.

And oh yeah, nice article.

12
by Vince (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 9:08pm

"Its similar to NE with the 3-4 5 years ago, it was out of vogue, so players to fill it were cheaper/easier to aquire, than they should have been."

That right there is why the Oakland A's in baseball and the Pats in the NFL have had so much success: They recognize which players are undervalued by the market. Then when the market adjusts, the teams are one step ahead, figuring out which players are NOW undervalued.

13
by Chris (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 10:40pm

The Pats scooping up cheaper "out of vogue" tight ends reminds me of moneyball also...

It also reminds me that the redskins skim those "overachivers" off the top and over pay for talent every year. Just because somebody caught X balls last year in THAT system doesn't mean you could count on that every year in YOUR system.

I like the 2TES, because you have more versatility for the pass/run and instead of having a FB 4 yards behind the line, you can replace him with a TE that is on the line and closer to causing damage in enemy territory.

These tight ends are tall, very fast, and very strong. They can use their big bodies to box out defenders on option routes in the passing game.

14
by Fnor (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 10:55pm

MS Paint represent!

15
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 12:53am

I like the 2TES, because you have more versatility for the pass/run and instead of having a FB 4 yards behind the line, you can replace him with a TE that is on the line and closer to causing damage in enemy territory.

That's interesting because I like the 3 wide set against a 4-3 (Or is that 4-2-3?). An excellent run set for a wide variety of runs. The third cd on their team is probably worse than your third best wideout. In some cases the advantage is huge.

You still can do about what you want, throw in some flair here or there like a 5 wide going down the field at the end of a half.

But a basic 3 wide sets up your entire offense. 2TE sets you up for some interesting tightend moves, but do you really have 2 good tight ends?

Not that it isn't a good set to throw out there, and if you have the personel to do it, go ahead, but there always seems to be a dirth of interesting recievers out there.

Even a Ricky Proel at this point might be a third wr threat.

But I totally respect your choice. Just like thinking about all the options. I'm sure I have a pretty heavy bias being a Colts fan.

;)

16
by NY expat (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 12:53am

Great article -- thanks.
Ditto JJcruiser's request.

Separately, if colleges can generate a lot of good TE's but are stuck with lumbering FB's, are they moving towards 2-TE sets as well?

17
by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 3:08am

It's Jaworski on paper... niceeeee...

18
by sam_acw (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 5:07am

Nice article. Time to go try this out on Madden! Speaking of blockers I'd love to see an EPC article on a fullback. My personal favourite would be Willie Henderson of the Packers but it seems time has caught up with him this season.

19
by jebmak (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 6:48am

Nice article? All I see is some nerd looking to get jacked up!

20
by jebmak (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 6:48am

Seriously though, nice article.

21
by James, London (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 8:22am

More great work, and another article for the "Strategy Minicamps" book you should publish. I'd also like to see a piece on how a D counters the 2 TE set.

22
by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 10:03am

I love these strategy articles, but one thing seems missing. The diagrams are nice, but not really a substitute for the real thing. I still haven't learned to 'read' line play during an actual game, to recognize a counter, etc.

Is there any way that you could use your relationship with Fox Sports to show clips of the actual plays you talk about? If that's not doable due to NFL restrictions, I'd be satisfied if one of you went to a local high school game and filmed tape of typical plays to illustrate your discussion.

23
by Chris (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 11:52am

Nathan...

2 TEs give you an advantage in passing because those tight ends don't "have" to go out and run routes, they can also stay back and help block. The tight ends are sitting on pretty real estate on a football field. They are right next to the defenses pass rushing De's. If a QB sees a blitz coming, they can audible Te's to help counter the blitz and say have receivers on the outside with man coverage. The Te's can either help a weaker tackle double a TE, or run passing routes on a slower LB or smaller S.

I used to think tight ends were pointless in the football game of chess because they were slower than receivers, but tight ends really have super value. In a read and react passing offense, they are big targets that WILL get open in zone coverages. Not only will they get open in zone coverage, but they can help block the blitz. By the way, the NFL has turned into a zone coverage league and tight ends are cheap right now. I'm not suprised at all that the Patriots drafted 2 of them high in the draft.

24
by Kevin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 2:20pm

I'm surprised about how Dallas has used Fasano as more of an H-Back than a second TE. I thought they would use him and Witten like the Giants used Shockey and Dan Campbell back in 2002... with both on the line of scrimmage most of the time and only 1 back. When there is 1 TE & WR on each side of the formation, threoretically it forces the defense to be balanced. In the NFL that rarely happens, which is why you can tell before the ball is snapped which way the Colts are going to run out of that formation. I'm surprised more teams don't do that. You would think a second TE wouldn't matter, but the Giants were really screwed up by Campbell leaving in free agency.

25
by Brian (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 4:59pm

Great article, Mike. Love the visual addition. Hopefully MDS has the same thing going for him in EPC soon.

26
by Chris (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 8:12pm

I'm suprised you bring up Dan Campbells name. I thought the Giants said he was the strongest guy on the team. He didn't get a lot of press, but being at least ONE of the strongest guys I would expect him to be a good blocker.

27
by DeepThreat (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 12:57pm

#7 - The Patriots drafted 2 tight ends this year. Graham is gone. I like him, too...

28
by TomC (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 9:31pm

Aaahhh! Aaahhh! [sound of head exploding with delight]

(I.e., nice article.)

29
by Trev (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 12:34am

These are great articles. Could you do a defense next?

30
by Bradam (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 11:16am

wow! this is basically the one thing that i have searched the internet for. keep up the good work. please do as many of this article as possible i learn so much from every one. thanks

31
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 2:38pm

12:

Querry what is the most crucial place of need and consistency on the football field (besides the QB), which is the best common denominator of all the bad teams in the league right now, and yet, except for left tackles, is usually less well compensated than the skill positions?

Answer: The offensive line.

Which would you rather have? Boldin and Fitzgerald with the Arizona line, or Gabriel and Jackson with the Patriots line? All the Patriots starting offensive linemen are signed through 2009.

It's a generalization to be sure, and counter examples could be made, but I think the best example of undervalued players is the offensive line, and the fact that the Patriots have all their guys locked up for the near future is a good example of them playing NFL Moneyball.

32
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 5:38pm

re:31
Seymour 2010
Warren 2009
Wilfork 2010
Jarvis Green 2009

Notice something there? The patriots have arguably the two most important things (the lines) locked up through 2009/2010.

The patriots have no problem letting go players at positions they feel are overvalued, but lock up players they feel are important and undervalued.

33
by Rev (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 9:57pm

If I were more of a conspiracy theorist, I'd be seriously afraid of Bill Belichick right about now. You could almost see him scheming in a dark room somewhere thinking along the lines of..."ok I'm going to bring back the 3-4 so teams will copy it..just to roll out the 3-4's weakness, two TE's. Pull the strings and watch them dance."

34
by mactbone (not verified) :: Sat, 11/04/2006 - 9:52am

Re 12:
Except the Patriots haven't stockpiled TEs in the way you're talking. They've drafted a lot of TEs, at least two in the first round the past couple years if IIRC. The Colts have done the same thing. That doesn't seem like getting cheap talent, at least not in the first round. If they kept getting UDFAs or 4th and later TEs I would say they're doing an effective job at getting cheap talent but first round for a TE is probably putting them very high in salary terms.

Anyway, how are TEs out of vogue? The Bears drafted Alonzo Mayes in the first round back in the 90s. In fact the Bears have been looking for a TE ever since Ditka left - the player not the coach. Most teams seem willing to put forth an effort to find a TE, it just doesn't seem like there have been that many quality ones out there. The trend is changing, sure, but the reason people undervalued TEs is because they kept spending high picks on TEs that didn't pan out.

35
by Alan C. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/05/2006 - 2:14pm

#18 "Nice article. Time to go try this out on Madden!"

I was thinking of the same thing. The problem is that the game's run-blocking artificial intelligence isn't sophisticated enough to handle the blocking schemes mentioned in this article. Hopefully by the introduction of Madden 09, the AI will be up to the task.