It’s not only in fantasy that there are lots of personnel mixes that can win – especially when formations come in to play. Mark Schofield takes a look at what the Atlanta Falcons are doing with their tight ends to find success.
While scouting NFC wide receivers and tight ends for the Bleacher Report NFL1000 project, I have come across some schemes and personnel packages that teams have used so far in 2016 with varying degrees of success. One such tactic is using three tight end formations in non-short yardage situations. Whether winter is truly coming as foretold by the gods and the return to three yards and a cloud of dust football is around the corner remains to be seen, but this is certainly a concept to keep an eye on. One team using this design with a great deal of success is the Atlanta Falcons. With Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo and rookie Austin Hooper, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has three good players at his disposal. While one might think that this formation is best suited to help in the running game, Atlanta has primarily used it in the passing game this season.
At first blush, 13 offensive personnel might seem more conducive to an effective running game. By adding two additional tight ends, an offense brings into the game two bigger players, likely more adept at blocking. In addition, this creates some advantageous angles for the blockers up front against a variety of defensive fronts. Here’s just one example of this in action for Atlanta this season. Against Oakland the Falcons face a 1st and 10 on their own 29-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan (#2) lines up under center using 13 personnel, with tight ends Austin Hooper (#81) and Levine Toilolo (#80) to the right, with Toilolo in a wing alignment. Fellow TE Jacob Tamme (#83) sets in his stance next to the left tackle, with Julio Jones (#11) split wide to the left. Devonta Freeman (#24) is the lone back in the backfield:
The Raiders have their base 4-3 defense on the field in an under front:
Atlanta runs an inside zone play to the left side:
The beauty of this personnel package comes into play here as Freeman takes the handoff and makes his bend read, cutting backside. On that side of the formation the offense has two tight ends, Hooper and Toilolo. Shortly after the snap these players flow in unison with the rest of the offensive line to their left. Hooper looks to the second level and strong safety Keith McGill (#39), who is down in the box, while Toilolo looks to prevent any backside pursuit from defensive end Khalil Mack (#52). But quickly after the snap, the DE rushes upfield and wide of the play, so Toilolo has to peel back and seal him off from the play. With the rest of the blocks setting up, including Hooper on the SS, you can see the backside hole develop:
Freeman sees this and bends his run to the backside, inside of Toilolo and underneath the block by Hooper downfield on McGill. This forces cornerback David Amerson (#29) to fill the running lane and try and make a stop. But anytime you can get a running back matched up on a CB, the offense will take its chances:
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Freeman is able to break through the arm tackle attempt from Amerson, and is finally brought down from behind after a long gain. But with 13 personnel, the Falcons are able to set this play up for success on both sides of the formation, particularly on the backside where the dual tight ends are in position to collapse the backside of the defense and set up the bend read for the running back.
Now let’s take a look at the various ways Atlanta has effectively used 13 personnel in the passing game. At the outset, this personnel package has the benefit of making the defense force its hand. Should the defensive coordinator use a nickel package against this group, the offense can take advantage of the bigger and more adept blockers and keep the ball on the ground. But should the defense stay in base, the offensive coordinator can attack through the air using some of these concepts, and hope to exploit a defense focused on stopping the run.
One way Atlanta likes to use this group in the passing game is by emptying the backfield. This first play against Oakland finds the Falcons facing a 1st and 10 on their own 25-yard line. Using 13 personnel, they line up again with Hooper and Toilolo in a wing alignment on the right, only this time the backfield is empty with Ryan in the shotgun. Freeman now splits wide to the right, with Jones split wide to the left with Tamme inside:
Now the Raiders face a second choice. They can decide to move a linebacker outside to cover Freeman, but that would come at the expense of moving a defensive back inside over one of the three tight ends, exposing the defense in the run game. So Amerson remains outside over the RB. The Raiders run Cover 4 on this play, which means that McGill, down in the box perhaps in anticipation of a running play, will need to get back into his zone quickly if the Falcons pass:
That’s exactly what Atlanta does, running a mirrored hitch / seam combination. Jones and Freeman run hitch routes on the outside while Tamme and Hooper run seam routes down the field. Toilolo runs a quick in route, looking to occupy the linebackers while serving as a checkdown for Ryan:
Free safety Reggie Nelson (#27) stays right in his zone, taking away the seam route from Tamme. But McGill is slow to drop with Hooper, allowing the rookie TE to break free in the secondary. Ryan hits him in stride:
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The width of the formation spreads Oakland’s base defense horizontally before the snap, and it allows Atlanta to attack the seams with two fairly athletic tight ends in Tamme and Hooper. Ryan is forced to step up in the pocket due to some pressure at the edges, but both tight ends are open for him on this play. He takes the better option in Hooper, and Atlanta has a big gain.
On this play from Week 4, the Falcons face a 1st and 10 against the Carolina Panthers, on Carolina’s 35-yard line. Using 13 personnel they again empty the backfield, putting Ryan in the shotgun and Hooper and Toilolo in a wing alignment on the right, with Freeman split wide. On the left side, Tamme gets in his stance next to the left tackle, with Aldrick Robinson (#19) split to the outside:
Again, given the personnel package the defense faces a choice. Here, the Panthers stay in their base, lining up in a 4-3 over front and showing two high safeties.
Carolina runs Cover 4, while the Falcons use this combination of routes:
Robinson runs a nice double move, and is able to beat the cornerback off the cut and Ryan hits him for the touchdown:
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But if this route does not come open, the routes on the backside set up nicely for Ryan:
Hooper is able to split the safeties on his post route, and with Freeman occupying the linebackers with his shallow route, Toilolo is able to get behind the linebacker and inside the cornerback on a curl. Ryan has a plethora of options at his disposal, but he takes the deep shot, and it pays off. Once more, we see how this personnel grouping and empty backfield is able to spread the defense and open up opportunities down the field.
This play against Oakland is a good example of an offense again forcing the defense’s hand in two ways. The Falcons line up with their 13 personnel package for a 1st and 10 play on their own 15-yard line. Tevin Coleman (#26) is in the game at running back. In response, the Raiders actually line up showing blitz and using a 5-3 defensive front, with five linemen and three linebackers, with only three defensive backs. That’s the first choice the Raiders make. The second comes when Freeman shifts out of the backfield to the left, lining up outside the wing alignment from Toilolo and Hooper. With only three defensive backs and the defense showing man coverage, linebacker Ben Heeney (#50) is forced to slide outside and cover the running back man-to-man:
Oakland uses Cover 1, while the Falcons run four verticals, with their three tight ends and Julio Jones. Coleman cuts underneath the four vertical routes on a shallow drag:
Notice the leverage Heeney uses before the snap. He’s standing on the bottom of the numbers while Coleman splits the numbers and the sideline, and the linebacker is doing everything to take away a route coming inside. But he doesn’t have a chance:
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Between the traffic created by the vertical routes from Hooper and Toilolo, and the face he is asked to cover a smaller, shifter player, Heeney cannot stay with Coleman. Ryan hits the RB in stride and Coleman races upfield with a gain of 23 yards. Once more, Shanahan uses the personnel and the formation to dictate the defense, and takes advantage.
The Hooper Throwback
Shanahan has two veteran tight ends in Tamme and Toilolo at his disposal, but the last member of this triumvirate is a rookie, Hooper from Stanford University. On two different occasions this season, the first-year player was left wide open on a beautifully designed play by Shanahan, that works so well that it can fool a defense even when they have seen it before on film.
Here’s the first example, coming from Atlanta’s game against the Raiders. Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 39-yard line, the Falcons line up with 13 personnel and Ryan under center. Hooper and Toilolo are in the wing alignment to the right, with Tamme and Jones in a pro formation to the left. The Raiders have their base 4-3 defense in the game using an under front:
The Falcons run a standard boot-action play – at least at the beginning:
Ryan takes the snap and fakes an outside zone run to the left to Coleman. The QB then peels back and rolls to the right. Jones runs a deep crossing route while Tamme runs a shallow drag. Toilolo blocks down at first with the rest of the line, before releasing to the flat. Again, this is a pretty standard route concept that most teams have in the playbook. As the play begins, the Raiders seem to have this covered, which you would expect, given the usage of this play around the NFL:
You can see that Tamme is covered on the shallow route while Jones has a cornerback behind him and a safety over the top bracketing his deeper pattern. Toilolo is just starting to release, but he has a defender on his tail.
But there is one more receiver about to enter the fray. Hooper:
The rookie has blocked down to his left with the flow of the play, and has continued to move down the line of scrimmage. Now he’ll run a wheel route to the backside, and as you can see, there is no one on that side of the field to cover him:
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Ryan puts the football on his rookie TE, who makes a safe catch. Heeney recovers well enough to prevent the touchdown, but he cannot prevent the big gain.
Since the Raiders were able to prevent the touchdown, you would think the Panthers – with the benefit of seeing this play on film – would be able to achieve at least the same level of success two weeks later.
You would be wrong:
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This time Hooper is able to take the play for the distance, and tack on another touchdown for the Falcons in their big win over the Panthers.
Through four games, Atlanta stands atop the NFC South with a 3-1 record, and they enjoy a two game lead in the division. While a lot of football remains, the Falcons are in a very good position here in the early going. Some of their offensive success can be attributed to the creative aspects of their offensive gameplan, including their ability to dictate the defense when using their 13 personnel package in the passing game.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.