NFL offensive coordinators are always looking for a play, or personnel package, that gives them an edge on the opponent. In the season opener, the New England Patriots unveiled a four tight end package against the Pittsburgh Steelers, to great success. Dave Archibald breaks down the plays and shows how getting one on one matchups with the group led to three touchdowns.
Let’s be clear: the New England Patriots played Thursday night’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers with an unfair competitive advantage. No, not headset malfunctions or deflated footballs. The Patriots have a personnel package that defensive coordinators must find a new way to contend with: a tight-end-heavy red zone set that looks almost impossible to defend. New acquisitions Scott Chandler and Michael Williams supplement three-time All-Pro Rob Gronkowski and veteran Michael Hoomanawanui, and, when all four take the field simultaneously, the Patriots have an embarrassment of riches at tight end.
During the entire 2014 season there were 6 plays where a team had 4 TEs on the field. Tonight NE had 6 plays with 4 TE's on the field.
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) September 11, 2015
Those six plays, largely concentrated near the goal line, produced three of the Patriots’ four touchdowns.
It’s Too Late For You and Your White Horse
On second and goal from the 6 yard line – and with a 7-0 lead – the Patriots showed a run heavy look with their four tight ends:
Hoomanawanui (#47) and Williams (#85) align to the left, while Gronkowski (#87) and Chandler (#88) line up to the right. The Patriots sell a zone run right, with the entire line flowing to that side and quarterback Tom Brady (#12) faking a handoff to Brandon Bolden (#38). Gronk acts like he’s trying to block on the second level, then releases into the end zone. Safety Will Allen (#20) realizes what is happening, and at the last moment tries to grab the tight end’s jersey, but is beaten so thoroughly that he cannot even successfully commit a holding penalty. Safety Mike Mitchell (#23) tries to chase down the play from the other side but is too late, as Brady lofts an easy pass to Gronk at the back of the end zone for the score.
The Steelers had two safeties in rather than a true heavy set, but they had to respect the run given the personnel, tight formation, and proximity to the goal line. This left them susceptible to the play action and led to an easy touchdown connection for Brady and Gronk.
I Knew You Were Trouble
On second and goal from the 1 yard line in the third quarter, the Patriots took off the kid gloves. They rolled out the four-tight-end package and aligned in a classic jumbo run look, with Chandler lined up in the backfield as a fullback, Gronkowski left, and Williams and Hoomanawanui right. The Steelers countered with their goal line defense, intent on stopping the run that close to the goal line:
First, Hoomanawanui splits out wide right, with linebacker Ryan Shazier (#50) following him. Then Chandler and Gronk shift left, with Chandler settling into the slot with Gronkowski wide. Linebackers Terence Garvin (#57) and Lawrence Timmons (#94) walk out to cover them.
The Patriots have shifted into a three-receiver formation, but the Steelers still have eight in the box to stop the run.
This is too easy for a veteran quarterback like Brady; He knows he has three one-on-one matchups and all he has to do is to pick the best option. In this case it’s Chandler, who runs an out route, using the in-cut by Gronkowski to create a natural pick that keeps Timmons from making a play on the ball before Chandler can cross the goal line.
Why You Gotta Be So Mean?
This next play is going to look awfully familiar at the beginning. On third-and-goal at the 1 yard line with ten minutes remaining in the game, the Patriots again broke out the four-tight-end look, lining up in the same formation as in the third quarter touchdown and employing identical pre-snap shifts. Pittsburgh –amazingly – also reacted the same way, with Garvin and Timmons again covering Gronk and Chandler on the left side and eight defenders staying in the box:
The Patriots do not run the same play, however, with the receivers running different routes this time. Gronkowski takes a jab step, faking as if he’s running the in-cut again, but then dashes to the corner of the end zone. Garvin bites, and this feint opens plenty of space for Brady to loft a pass to the big tight end for the score that would prove to be the final margin of victory.
Gronkowski is far too dangerous a receiver to be left to any but the best linebackers in pass coverage, even when close to the goal line. Yet with four tight ends on the field, few defensive coordinators are going to sacrifice run defense by pulling a linebacker to get a corner or safety on the field.
Everything Has Changed
If Thursday night was any indication, the Patriots’ four tight end package generates mismatches in the red zone that will be a nightmare to defend. New England not only scored on all four of their trips inside the 20, but they made it look easy. One Consolation for defensive coordinators is that the Patriots were unable to punch the ball in on two goal line rushing attempts with a three-tight-end, six-lineman group.
Perhaps teams will decide to double-team Gronkowski and take their chances with New England beating them on the ground. That’s not a great option either, though, as the Patriots would have a numerical advantage at the point of attack, but it seems like a better bet than hoping a linebacker can single-cover the All-Pro tight end. With receiving weapons like Chandler and the peerless Gronkowski, New England has an unfair advantage in the red zone that should help them rack up points throughout the 2015 campaign.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.