KCCD Staff Writer: Sam Mitchell
The NFL is a matchup driven league, and everyone knows it. Succeeding in the NFL is about finding players who can win battles against their opponents, and putting those players in position to do just that. If your wide receiver can beat the corner across from him, and the quarterback can get him the ball, you’re going to make a play. If your three technique defensive tackle has the quickness to shoot past the opponent’s offensive guard, you have the chance to disrupt the quarterback or make a stop in the backfield.
This is a simple concept, but finding players to create these mismatches is the challenge that personnel departments face every day. NFL teams spend countless resources and hours trying to identify the players that will pose challenges for the other team.
One way to consistently create mismatches and advantages on offense is through the tight end position. Versatile tight ends with athletic ability can pose major issues for a defense; as they can be moved all over the field and can be very hard to match-up with in coverage. Through pre-snap movement, the numerous options they afforded to an offense (particularly through two tight end personnel), and the athletic and physical advantages they have over defenders in coverage; athletic and well-rounded tight ends can manufacture opportunities for the offense to move the ball down the field.
The Well Balanced Tight End and Pre-Snap Movement
In my opinion, the most dangerous tight end is the well-rounded tight end. The modern tight end needs to be at least serviceable in the three principle duties he could be called upon to perform: blocking in the run game, protecting the passer, and being a threat in the receiving game. He can achieve this by consistently seeing the field and being a mismatch nightmare. If a tight end is balanced and possesses, to some degree, all of the above skills, he will give no tell of what play offense is running and can be an asset on any down.
This range of skills comes into play in terms of formation shifts and dictating defenses, especially with two tight ends in the game.
I have done some research in to how defenses respond to pre-snap shifting (I would recommend you all check out “Defensive Football Strategies,” a book by the American Football Coach’s Association) and I found that it can dictate coverages and calls; making a defense somewhat predictable. From what I found, most defenses will have a set of plays that they choose from based on what formation shift the offense performs, but those defensive options are generally based on relatively vanilla plays. Let’s use a simple ‘Cover 2’ call as an example of what play a defense might shift to. If you have seen from viewing tape that a defense normally changes to a cover 2 play when confronted with a TE/H back flexing from a wing position to the slot in 2 TE sets, you can exploit this in a game. This can work with any coverage that you identify on tape as a defense’s ‘go to’ play against a certain offensive formation shift. Continuing on with the example, if the defense shifts to a cover 2 when the offense moves an offline TE to the slot, the offense can run a number of cover 2 beaters from its new alignment (such as a ‘smash’ concept where the split end runs a short curl and the slot TE runs a corner route into the sideline hole above the corner, if the corner covers the split end, and in front of the safety playing a deep half zone).
While most defenses will have a range of more complex plays that they go to when the offense shifts, the general idea is the same: identify defenses’ tendencies against formation shifts and run plays post-shift that exploit these coverages.
Non-tight end pre-snap movement can serve this function as well, but a the tight end position makes this much more effective, as a balanced tight end provides diversity because he can be shifted to and from a number of different positions, thus allowing the offense to reach many different sets from which they can exploit a defense’s ‘go to’ coverage. By forcing defenses into predictable coverages which can be schemed against, tight end motion can be an effective way to gain a pre-snap advantage.
As we will see below, shifting using 2 tight end personnel or 21 personnel (2 TEs, 1 RB), with tight ends who can effectively receive and block, can create problems for defenses, in addition to personnel and formational dilemmas (base vs. sub) that can be exploited by the offense.
The Personnel Dilemma
The most basic and fundamental challenge that a defense faces when attempting to combat a 2 tight end set is deciding what personnel to field against it. If both tight ends are at least decent blockers, the offense could come out in a heavy run formation with two tight ends on the line or one on the line and one in the backfield playing a fullback role. To effectively defend against this possibility, the defense needs to come out in their base personnel package, whether that be a 3-4 or 4-3 front. This is how teams traditionally defend 21 personnel. But now that many tight ends can move down the field like wide receivers, how does a defense cover them in base personnel? Most teams are not fortunate enough to have linebackers who can match up athletically in coverage with these new wave tight ends. So the logical progression is to start playing 21 personnel like 11 personnel, with a nickel package, that is substituting an extra defensive back for a linebacker or defensive lineman, in the hope of better defending the numerous passing-game weapons that the offense has on the field.
This is a strategy; however, that creates just as many problems as the base defensive formation. The defense, with five defensive backs and a combination of only six linebackers and defensive linemen on the field, is generally left susceptible to the run. An offense can now come out with two tight ends inline or one in the backfield and one on the line, and they should have an advantage in the running game. Even if the nickel back or one of the traditional safeties enters the box, the offense should have an advantage running the ball as they will have seven blockers to seven box defenders, and the defensive back, in most cases, will be an easier blocking assignment than the defender that would be in the game in base personnel. Even if the second tight end is flexed out into the slot, and thus is not a threat as a blocker, the offense still gains the run game advantage, as the extra defensive back covering the tight end will leave only six defenders in the box, which smart quarterbacks will capitalize on.
Two tight end personnel forces defenses to pick their poison. Do they stay in base personnel and leave themselves susceptible to a tight end on linebacker mismatch? Or do they sub to nickel personnel where offenses will have a definite advantage in the run game? Good offenses are now capitalizing on this concept.
Take Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as examples. All season long these quarterbacks exploited defensive personnel with their two tight end formations. I remember watching a Denver game this year where the Broncos, with heavy injuries at running back, ran the ball all the way down the field using the principle above. Whenever Denver came out in 21 personnel, the defense came out in its nickel package. Seeing six defenders in the box over and over again Manning, would simply check to a run play at the line; and it was generally good for five or six yards per play. But what could the defense do? If the defense didn’t want their linebacker matched up on Jacob Tamme, they were forced, in many cases, to sub in an extra defensive back in an attempt to take away the tight end. (I tried to find some videos on youtube displaying this, but no luck. Trust me though, it happened a lot.)
An even more extreme example is something the Patriots did a few times in the 2011 season. The Patriots’ offense would come out in 20 personnel, an empty backfield set, all but assuring the defense that they would be running pass play. But then the Patriots shift tight end Aaron Hernandez into the backfield, where he would take a handoff.
The point of all this being that having 2 multifaceted tight ends on the field can force the defense into a sort of personnel limbo, in which any personnel group they field can be exploited by the offense through checks between run and pass at the line and pre-snap movement. This is not as easy as it sounds, however; or all teams would be doing it effectively. In order to truly create a run-pass threat, the tight ends must be both viable receivers and blockers.
So far we have discussed versatile tight ends creating offensive advantages through: (1)the wide variety of positions they can be motioned to, pre-snap, and thus the predictable coverages these can create; and (2) the base/nickel conundrum the two tight end package can create for defenses. The final way that a talented tight end can create advantages for an offense (discussed only briefly above), is through the consistent size and skill-set mismatch they present to the defenders who are tasked with covering them.
The Physical Phenom
While tight ends and two tight end sets can create strategic advantages for an offense through pre-snap movement and personnel confusions for the defense, athletic tight ends can also create individual matchup issues with defenses based purely on their physical advantages. Tight ends like Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham cause havoc against defenses because of the matchup issues they create.
Linebackers are often too slow to cover athletic tight ends. And while corners and safeties may have the necessary cover skills and foot quickness, they generally suffer from a significant size disadvantage against 6’4” and over tight ends. Corners are there to cover wide receivers, and while there are clearly skill based mismatches at times between receivers and corner, these matchups do not present the inherent challenge of covering a position whose physical skills don’t match that of the corner. There are generally no defensive players who are on the team specifically to cover the tight end. Most defenses don’t have players with the combination of size and athletic ability to cover, one-on-one, physically dominant tight ends, like Jimmy Graham, so mismatches are the frequent result.
If Jimmy Graham lines up in the slot, he will generally have a physical advantage no matter what player the defense puts on him. If it’s a corner or safety covering Graham, Graham has the size advantage. If it is a linebacker on Graham, Graham has the athletic advantage (and often a size advantage as well). Thus, advantage offense.
There are some safeties around the league who have the skills to cover tight ends on a regular basis. If trying to cover an athletic tight end one-on-one, in man coverage, a team may move one of their deep safeties (I’m assuming most safeties with the skills to man-up on tight end are starters) down to the line, over the tight end. This could leave a scenario on the outside, on the tight end’s side of the formation (generally strong side), in which the corner now has no over-the-top help with the wide receiver they are covering, potentially creating an advantage for the offense on the outside.
Some teams attempt to cover an athletic tight end by bracketing him off the line (double covering him with one defender outside and one inside – - think what the Chiefs, under Romeo Crennel, always did against Antonio Gates). This can work in covering the tight end and disrupt the route if the defenders harass the tight end coming off the line, but it can leave corners in single coverage without safety help over the top.
As you can see, athletic tight ends that matchup issues, can create coverage challenges for defenses as they try to find defenders who can contain the tight end. There are defensive strategies and alignments to effectively cover the tight end, but this can create other coverage issues around the field.
Tight End Use and Acquisition Going Forward
In the past, most teams have carried three tight ends on the roster. Teams generally had one starting tight end, who was almost always on the field and could contribute in multiple way; along with a bigger inline blocking tight end and a more versatile, moveable ‘H-Back’ type tight end.
I see that lineup changing in the future. While there are still scenarios where the true blocking tight end is useful and necessary, I think, in the future, there will be less blocking only tight ends, as it will be necessary for all tight ends to be able to serve some role in the passing game. I think we will also begin to see fewer true H-Back only tight ends, those who spend most of their time in the backfield or in the wing position off the line.
This is not because these skills and specialties are unimportant (for the 2 tight end set to be truly versatile and a threat in both run and pass situation from a variety of alignments, you need tight ends who can fill the H-Back role and who can be strong in line blockers), but because I see the “backup” tight end becoming more of an every down player who can contribute in different situations in all downs and distances, not just a niche player who fills one specific role in certain situations. I believe in the coming years teams are going to trend more towards what the Patriots do with their tight ends. In New England the prototypical tight end role is filled by Rob Gronkowski, who generally lines up on the line (though he lines up in the slot at times) and performs the tasks of a traditional tight end (at an extremely high level). Then the Patriots have Aaron Hernandez who does not have the typical tight end skillset. Hernandez is used in many roles, and is moved all around in various formations. He lines up on the line, in the slot, out wide, at an H-Back/Wing position, and even in the backfield as a running back. I see the use of Hernandez type tight ends growing, which will bring a lot of versatility to an offense when used with a more traditional tight end.
If you have a tight end like Hernandez, who can fill a receiving role and an H-Back/Fullback role, there will be many cases where an offense is allowed more versatility by fielding the tight end instead of a true fullback or wide receiver, who can fill fewer roles.
NFL teams have taken notice of the success the Patriots have had with their tight ends and are beginning to follow suit. While less dynamic, Miami has begun to follow the New England tight end model with Anthony Fasono filling the more traditional tight end role and Charles Clay being the more versatile ‘Joker’ type tight end who can be moved all around the field to create mismatches and exploit personnel. The same trend can be seen in Denver where a heavy emphasis was put on acquiring tight ends last offseason when Joel Dreeson and Jacob Tamme were both signed as free agents, playing immediate roles on the offense with quite a bit of success.
In training camp this previous season, the Chiefs seemed to have a plan to employ a similar two tight end set, but it didn’t amount to much in the regular season with Kevin Boss going out for the year with a head injury week two. If Boss can come back healthy and Tony Moeaki can continue his late season success, the Chiefs may have the makings of a very solid one-two combination at tight end.
There has also been an increase on many teams in the number of tight ends on the roster. Four per team on the opening day roster seems to be the norm now, and teams like Green Bay and New England have even held as many as five on the 53 man roster at times over the last two years. As tight ends can be some of the most versatile players on the field, this makes sense to me, and many can contribute on special teams as well. So this trend should continue.
Traditionally, the tight position seemed to be valued less than other offensive ‘skill’ positions. With teams starting to trend more and more toward the versatile 2 tight end sets, I see the value of the tight end position increasing. A premium has begun, and will continue, to be placed on acquiring tight end talent until defenses find a way to consistently matchup favorably with tight ends, while not exposing other areas of the field.
It is tough to find players coming out of college, with adequate skills and the stature to fill this growing need in the NFL. Teams are likely to begin putting more and more resources into the tight end position, both in the draft and in free agency, to find players with the skills to excel at the position. I also expect to see more teams taking chances on athletes coming out of college who have the physical skills to grow into tight ends at the next level; Jimmy Graham, drafted by the Saints in 2010, and Les Bowen, signed by the Dolphins in 2012, neither of whom had much football experience coming out, come to mind in this regard. One of these acquisitions worked out and one didn’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more teams taking chances on players with the physical ability needed to pose a matchup problem as a tight end in the NFL, even if they are not polished products, yet.
The NFL is a progressive league, always growing and changing. One of the new evolutions of the NFL is the growing use of versatile tight ends and 2 tight end personnel. These personnel can bring the offense so many advantages that it is hard to see teams not following New England’s lead in attempting to acquire high end talent at the tight end position.
Until defenses, league-wide, find a way to nullify the advantages that multiple skilled tight ends can bring, the prevalence of tight ends in NFL offenses and the amount of resources allocated to the position will only grow, as teams hope to find their own dynamic duo.