In the NFL, coaches will spend time in the film room studying the schemes of the most productive teams from the previous season to see if there is a tactic that can be copied and implemented into their respective playbooks.
For instance, teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Chicago Bears acquired tight ends in the draft with the intention of utilizing more multiple-tight end formations in 2012. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks added talented veteran tight ends to their rosters to provide their offensive coordinators with the flexibility to use more double-tight end sets.
With the two-tight end package set to take the league by storm, here are three reasons why the strategy poses problems for the defense:
1. The use of "12" personnel neutralizes the effectiveness of eight-man fronts against the run.
Offensive coordinators originally broached the idea of using "12" personnel to counter the eight-man fronts utilized by defensive coaches to stop the run. Defenses routinely drop an extra defender into the box to fill the eight gaps along the front line (each area between two offensive linemen/tight end is considered a gap and defenders are assigned a gap responsibility in a one-gap scheme). Against two-back formations, the addition of an extra defender gives the defense a numerical advantage at the point of attack, ensuring a free defender to the ball.
However, the deployment of multiple tight ends along the line of scrimmage nullifies that advantage and creates big-play opportunities in the run game.
For instance, if the offense aligns in an "Ace" formation, with the tight ends aligned at both ends to create a balanced formation, the defense is unable to gain an edge by dropping an eighth defender into the box. Without a free defender to run unimpeded to the ball carrier, the defensive coordinator must reconfigure the alignments of his front-line defenders to fill some of the gaps at the point of attack.
Offensive coordinators are also incorporating more "Tight-Wing" formations with both tight ends aligned on the same side to create an advantage in the running game. By aligning two tight ends on same side in a tight alignment, the defense is vulnerable on the edge (tight side) due to a potential double team by the ends on the outside force player.
In addition, the defense is also vulnerable to counters and traps to the open side (away from the tight end) with the Wing player pulling across the formation to kick out an unsuspecting defender on the interior. New England successfully used the tactic to spring their runners for big gains on inside runs, so others will certainly attempt to follow suit by incorporating more Tight Wing runs into their game plans.
2. Formation flexibility with "12" personnel poses problems defending the passing game.
One of the benefits of utilizing "12" personnel is the ability for the offense to utilize a variety of base and spread formations without shuttling different personnel into the game. The H-back plays the role of a fullback, wide receiver or second tight end in the package, aligning in various spots within the formation to create problems for the defense. Offensive coordinators are tapping into that versatility by featuring a variety of open formations with the tight end deployed as quasi-receivers. By opening the formation, the offensive coordinator makes it easy for the quarterback to diagnose the coverage and creates potential mismatches in space.
In the example below from the Patriots' Week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills, New England is in a "Dubs" formation with Gronkowski aligned in the slot on the right and Wes Welker in a stack position on the outside. On the left, Hernandez is in a stack alignment behind Tijuan Underwood in the slot. By displacing both tight ends away from the line, the Patriots are able to quickly identify the coverage based on the alignments of the linebackers and defensive backs. If the corners are matched up with the wide receivers, Tom Brady knows the Bills are locked in man coverage and he can audible to an effective route combination to exploit the scheme.
Offensive coordinators are also incorporating the use of "Empty" formations with "12" personnel to create favorable matchups. In the example from Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants, the Patriots emptied the formation with Deion Branch and Welker aligned on the left and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Gronkowski and Hernandez deployed on the right. Hernandez is positioned as the No. 3 receiver to get an isolated matchup with Chase Blackburn over the middle of the field.
The route-design calls for clear-out routes from Welker and Gronkowski on the hashes, creating space for Hernandez to slip past Blackburn following a stutter move on an option route. With a new wave of athletic tight ends capable of winning isolated matchups, offensive coordinators around the league will continue to utilize spread formations to create big-play opportunities in the passing game.
3. The size and athleticism of the "move" tight end creates matchup problems for defensive coordinators.
As more teams start to incorporate double-tight end packages into their game plans, the H-back or "move" tight end becomes a bigger weapon in the passing game. Teams are adding basketball player-types at the position, and the combination of size and athleticism puts defensive coordinators in a quandary when determining how to match up with the package.
If the defense remains in base personnel, the H-back enjoys a significant advantage over a linebacker lacking the agility to stay close in coverage. If the defensive coordinator uses nickel personnel, the H-back uses his superior size to post up smaller defenders in space.
In the past, offensive coordinators would employ this tactic primarily in the red zone, but more play-callers are taking advantage of these matchups by aligning the tight end in a wide position to get him isolated on linebackers or defensive backs in space. The quarterback will capitalize on the matchup by targeting the tight end on fades (back-shoulder fades) and slants. Given the superior size advantage, this becomes a high-percentage throw that is nearly indefensible.
Teams like the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints routinely utilize this tactic to get the ball into the hands of Jermichael Finley and Jimmy Graham, and others will certainly follow suit with athletic tight ends emerging as prominent playmakers in the passing game.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.