Too Deep Zone: Multi-Tight End Sets in the Passing Game

by Mike Tanier

Two weeks ago, we examined how teams are using multi-tight end sets in the running game. As promised, we'll take a look at the passing game this week.

Countless formations

After spending a few weeks studying game tapes, I'm impressed by the diversity of two-tight end packages that appear in the NFL. Teams like the Chargers, Cowboys, Colts, and Patriots have devised countless formations based around a simple personnel grouping: two tight ends, two receivers, and a running back.

Graphing all of the variations would take hours and make this page scroll down forever: the two tight ends can line up on the same side or on opposite sides of the offensive line. Similarly, the receivers can be split or aligned to one side. Various types of "trips" formations can be designed using two tight ends and a receiver or two receivers and a tight end. Of course, receivers like Antonio Gates often line up in the slot, while the Cowboys sometimes use their tight ends as fullbacks. The formations sometimes seem as unique as snowflakes.

Figure 1: Split Tight End Formation

Let's take a closer look at two alignments that have cropped up frequently during tape study. Figure 1 shows a formation that the Chargers and Cowboys frequently use. The initial alignment floods the left side of the formation with three eligible receivers, and no one split wide at the far side of the field. But pre-snap, the right tight end splits wide. Suddenly, what looked like a balanced run-pass formation looks much more like a passing formation. Defenses that place a safety over the right tight end as a force defender can be set up for a mismatch using this shift; most safeties cannot cover Gates or Jason Witten in space.

Figure 2: Ace Tight Formation

Figure 2 shows another formation that several teams are using. This one has also worked its way into video games in recent years, where it is called "Ace Tight." It looks like a vanilla formation, with the tight ends and receivers split, but notice how close the receivers are to the offensive line. They are practically wingbacks, just a few yards to the left and right of the box. The receivers in this formation are in great position to block for counters and off-tackle runs, but that's not why Ace Tight is gaining popularity. These "tight" receivers are in great position to attack the weaknesses in two-deep coverage schemes. One receiver's route options are shown in the diagram. A cornerback aligned head-up on the receiver is vulnerable to a corner route, while a cornerback with a wider split (one who may have zone responsibilities) is vulnerable to a hitch. The tight formation gives the receiver extra room to run after he makes his break on the corner route or other sideline routes. In a few paragraphs, we'll see how the Patriots use this principle to isolate tight end Ben Watson against a safety.

One common theme you will see in the figures that follow is that defenses frequently use two-deep coverage schemes to combat two-tight end formations. The threat of a deep seam route forces defensive coordinators to play it safe against players like Gates and Watson. In fact, while we won't see any completed seam passes in this week's diagrams, we'll see how the threat of the seamer opens up other options for the multi-tight end offense.

Cowboys Double-Cross

Let's start reviewing game footage by analyzing a fairly standard play: a double-cross route combination designed to match up a great wide receiver (Terrell Owens) against a linebacker in zone coverage.

Figure 3: Cowboys T.O. Drag

The Cowboys face third-and-5 inside the red zone in the first quarter against the Titans. They break the huddle and align in an unbalanced formation with three of their best receivers flooding the right side (Figure 3). Terry Glenn is closest to the sideline, with Owens in the slot. Both receivers are one yard off the line of scrimmage, allowing Jason Witten (right side) and Anthony Fasano (left) to line up as true tight ends. Marion Barber is the Cowboys running back; Drew Bledsoe is the quarterback. The Titans respond with their nickel personnel package and a two-deep zone look.

Pre-snap, Glenn goes in motion across the formation. The Titans shift accordingly. Their right cornerback (remember, he's on the offensive left side) moves from a force position outside Fasano's shoulder to a split position over Glenn. The two defensive backs on the offensive right side shuffle until one is outside Owens' shoulder and the other occupies the space between Owens and Witten. The defensive adjustment confirms a Cover-2 pre-snap read. Glenn's motion was also designed to disrupt any likely Titans blitz packages. The force cornerback was a likely blitzer in the original formation, but by changing the number of eligible receivers on each side of the ball, the Cowboys forced the Titans to wave off any possible blitzes (though judging from the tape, the undermanned Titans weren't planning anything fancy on this play).

Figure 3 shows the route combination. Let's examine each player's role. Glenn and Witten run the deep routes: Glenn a post into the end zone and Witten a seamer. Both routes are crucial. Glenn not only commands the attention of the safety to his side, but he also influences his cornerback to run with him up the stem of his route. His route essentially clears two defenders. Witten gets a fast, clean release to the outside. The nickel defender to his side takes a deep set before trading Witten off to the safety. The combination of deep routes creates a great deal of space underneath.

Fasano, after chipping a defender on his release, runs a crossing route at a depth of about eight yards. He's probably the fifth read on this play. He has two jobs: to influence his linebacker to take a deep set, and to "rub" anyone chasing Owens in man coverage. On this particular play, the Titans are playing straight zone, but this play would be even more effective against them if they opted for a man-under scheme: Glenn would take his cornerback all the way to the end zone while Fasano wiped out Owens' defender.

Owens, after an initial move outside, runs a very shallow drag below the linebacker level. Drag routes are designed to allow receivers to cross through multiple zones until they find a soft spot. On this play, there are many soft spots. Barber's shallow hitch freezes the middle linebacker. Fasano pulls linebacker Patrick Sirmon deep and toward the middle of the field. Owens times his cross well, running at about 3/4th speed so that Fasano, Barber, and Glenn have time to stretch their zones. Bledsoe also demonstrates good timing: Owens is running too shallow a route to pick up a first down without gaining some yards after the catch, so Bledsoe waits until Owens is just to the left of Sirmon before leading the receiver with the throw. Sirmon reacts, but he lacks the speed to bring Owens down before he turns the corner. Owens races for a first down before Sirmon and Hill drag him out of bounds.

Three Tight Ends in the Passing Game

In the previous example, the Titans attacked the Cowboys' base two-tight end set with a five-man secondary. This was due both to the down-and-distance situation and the strength of the Cowboys receivers. Most defenses use their standard personnel grouping against a two-tight end, two-receiver package, though they may move a linebacker or two up to act as down linemen.

But what happens when the offense shifts into a three-tight end look? Again, the defense's reaction varies, depending on the down, the distance, and the opponent.

We generally think of a three-tight end formation as a running formation. But the Patriots are unpredictable when they switch to a three-tight end package. Opponents who would normally switch to a 4-4 or 5-3 defense (replacing a cornerback with an extra lineman or linebacker) are reluctant to do so against the Patriots. This benefits the Patriots' running game, but Bill Belichick's assistants are very clever about using multiple tight ends as weapons in the passing game as well.

Figure 4: Patriots 3-TE Corner

Diagram 4 shows a play that the Patriots used to gain 35 yards against the Bengals. The Patriots lined up on first-and-10 in a three-tight end set: Daniel Graham is on the right side, Ben Watson is on the left, and David Thomas is on the wing over Watson's shoulder. Watson is such a receiving threat that the Bengals don't dare switch to a run-stopping personnel package. Instead, they line up in a base 4-3, with Tory James in the force position. For clarity, only three defenders are shown in the diagram: James, safety Kevin Kaesviharn, and linebacker Landon Johnson.

The pre-snap read suggests two-deep zone coverage. What makes this formation so effective is that it creates a lot of open space on the left side of the field. James is pinched close to the line of scrimmage, giving him a lot of space to defend in the flat. Kaesviharn is in a typical deep set, but his first responsibility on a typical play from this formation is to defend the deep seam route by Watson. The Patriots have a different plan: they are going to attack the left sideline. Most teams don't have multiple tight ends with the speed to execute this play effectively, but the Patriots have three tight ends who can run deeper routes.

Both Thomas and Watson get clean releases at the snap. Graham stays in to provide pass protection. Running back Laurence Maroney runs a flat route while Thomas and Watson run parallel stem routes. At about 15 yards, Thomas runs an out route while Watson breaks for the corner. The receiver to the right side, unfortunately, is invisible on the television replays; let's just have him run a fly route.

The flat route by Maroney forces James to take a shallow drop. James also reacts to Thomas' out route and finds himself in a no-man's land between two receivers. Johnson is also influenced by Thomas' route, leaving Watson to Kaesvahirn. The Bengals safety has no outside help when Watson runs his corner route, Watson has room to get separation because of the tight formation, and Tom Brady has time to allow the play to develop because of the six-man protection. The result is a big gain.

The Patriots mix in their three-tight end look on early downs. The Cowboys only use it in traditional short-yardage situations. But opponents must fear the receiving threat of a player like Witten, even when they are trying to stuff a power run. Diagram 5 shows a third-and-short formation used by the Cowboys against the Titans. Witten is the wing to the left side. Fasano is next to him. Third-stringer Ryan Hannam is on the right of the formation. Glenn is the lone wide receiver. Marion Barber is the running back.

Figure 5: Cowboys Flanker Out

The Cowboys are a no-nonsense offense in short-yardage situations: they generally run the ball. But when they do pass, it's usually a play-action throw to Glenn. The Titans appear reluctant to switch to a run-stopping personnel package on this play. They move two linebackers and a safety to the line of scrimmage to create a seven-man front, but their only concession to third-and-short is an extra safety. Three Titans linemen play head-up against the center and guards to stuff any short runs, but safety Chris Hope and the Titans linebackers are close to the tight ends in the event that they must drop into pass coverage.

(Note: the deep safety cannot be seen on the television replay, so he may actually be a cornerback).

The Cowboys do elect to pass on this play. Fasano and Hannam stay in to block, Witten runs a short curl, and Barber's initial steps suggest a run off-tackle. Bledsoe executes an uninspiring fake, but the rest of the play-action, particularly the two blocking tight ends, is convincing. The Cowboys want to trap Tennessee's linebackers and safeties in run support, and they succeed: Glenn is isolated in man coverage against safety Lamont Thompson. This is exactly the matchup the Cowboys wanted. Thompson must react to the possibility of a deep pass, so he keeps Glenn in front of him as Glenn runs a sideline route for 12 yards. Glenn may have had an option on his route: if Thompson tried to jam him or got caught up in the run action, Glenn may have gone deep.

Empty Sets and Shotgun Sets

Let's finish up with a brief look at empty sets and shotgun sets using two tight ends. We'll take our examples from Chargers game tape. We think of the Chargers as an I-formation running team, but coordinator Cam Cameron uses lots of two-tight end sets to exploit the strengths of Antonio Gates (a great receiver) and Brandon Manumaleuna (a 280-pound extra tackle with pretty good hands).

Figure 6: Chargers Empty Backfield

Figure 6 is taken from my game notes from Week 1 game against the Raiders. The initial formation included LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, Eric Parker split left, another receiver (probably Keenan McCardell) in the slot, Gates as the right tight end, and Manumaleuna in the wing to Gates' right. Before the snap, Tomlinson motions to the right sideline, creating an empty backfield. The Raiders were in man coverage on this play, and a safety followed LT to his new position. At the snap, Tomlinson runs a fly to clear the defense, Gates runs a seamer, and Manumaleuna slips into the flat. The receivers to the far side run a post and a cross. On this play, Philip Rivers froze the Raiders linebackers by watching Gates at the start of the play, then flipped to Manumaleuna for a modest gain. Once again, the threat of a long pass up the seam created an opportunity for a productive throw underneath.

Last week against the Rams, the Chargers attempted a similar play from the same formation. Gates ran a hook route in this version of the play, and Rivers' first read was to Parker running the post against man coverage. But the Rams blitzed a safety and recorded an easy sack. It was a bold call by Rams coordinator Jim Haslett, and it demonstrates the kinds of adjustments defenses can make based on film analysis.

Figure 7: Tomlinson Sideline

Gates' versatility allows Cameron to use his two-tight end personnel grouping in a variety of game situations -- even the two-minute offense. Against the Rams last week, the Chargers effectively used their two-tight end package while driving just before halftime. Figure 7 may be a little busy, but the concept is simple. Gates is the tight end split to the left side. Manumaleuna is the motion H-back who motions into the backfield. Cameron has built a three-wideout, two-back look out of a very different personnel package.

The Rams are in a 3-3-5 defense, and the pre-snap read is a blitz by the right linebacker. You would expect Manumaleuna to stay in the backfield to block, but instead he chips the blitzing middle linebacker and runs an angle route. Gates, one of the game's best decoys when not actually catching the ball, runs a fly route (Travis Fisher, the Rams' best cornerback, covers Gates on this play). But most of the action occurs on the right side, where McCardell runs a drag route, taking cornerback Fakhir Brown with him. The Rams are in man coverage, and linebacker Dexter Coakley is no match for Tomlinson, who runs a sideline route and makes a catch for a six-yard gain.

The interesting thing about the shotgun formation used by the Chargers on this play is that it can easily be turned into a max-protect alignment. Opponents just cannot guess by the personnel grouping or the pre-snap set exactly what the Chargers are planning.


While studying multi-tight end sets, I saw tight ends playing fullback, tight ends running deep posts, tight ends catching screen passes, and tight ends catching option passes from running backs. I saw the Eagles use a three-tight end personnel grouping. I saw the Ravens in a two-tight end, two-back package on third-and-long (I don't recall if that was before or after Jim Fassell was fired).

Basically, multi-tight end sets are everywhere, and they are being used in every possible situation. And as colleges keep churning out tight ends who are as big as fullbacks and as fast as wide receivers, offensive coordinators will keep scheming to use these athletic specimens as all-purpose weapons.

A few years ago, the second tight end was a glorified right tackle who only played in short-yardage situations. Now, players like Fasano and Manumaleuna are key components in their team's offenses. They block, they run routes, and they sprint up the pipe on a deep route just when you least expect it.

Somewhere, Don Warren is smiling.


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