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.
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.
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.