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The PBP: Lance Kendricks and the modern 2-TE passing game

Let's see....Jimmy!  Have you ever seen a tight end?  What the hell's a Kardashian?  Kim Who?  Can he play on the line?  He's a she?!  What the hell are you talking about?  Damnit, Jimmy!
Let's see....Jimmy! Have you ever seen a tight end? What the hell's a Kardashian? Kim Who? Can he play on the line? He's a she?! What the hell are you talking about? Damnit, Jimmy!

  Last time we fired up the projector, we looked at our first-round pick Robert Quinn and the impact he can have as a pass-rushing specialist.  Today, we'll move on to day 2 of the draft and take a look at Lance Kendricks, the Pats' commendable use of two young tight ends from 2010, and some pros and cons from the concept.

  (WARNING: this post is long and arduous.  It is best digested with an Abita amber and some andouille.  And a lot of time to spare.)

  No whammies, no whammies, big buuuuuucks....STOP!!!  A new Playbook Projector?!  Whoopee!

  Let's start with a bit of history.  The development of the 2-TE Singleback (or Ace) formation comes largely from Joe Gibbs.  To help negate the pass-rushing capabilities of Lawrence Taylor, Gibbs developed the H-back position.  This new position required more versatility than any of its predecessors - it was part classic tight end, part fullback, part wide receiver.

  Over the years, as other coaches implemented and modified the strategy to their own ends (namely Norv Turner and Tony Dungy), the 2-TE set became more commonplace.  Of course, much of the push came from college feeding the right kind of players to the NFL.  BYU has produced players tailor-made for the position, including Todd Christensen, Chad Lewis, Doug Jolley and their current tight end Devin Mahina; Wisconsin has done so as well with Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and, of most importance to Ram fans, Lance Kendricks.

  Today, we'll look at a couple things.  First, we'll investigate New England's use of Aaron Hernandez, the youngest active player in the NFL last year who played the position to great effect in his rookie year, and Rob Gronkowski, who along with Alge Crumpler was used as a traditional in-line TE.  Then we'll look at Kendricks' efforts at Wisconsin and some clips of Mike Hoomanawanui to compare to New England's young pair.

Hernandez and Gronkowski: the odd couple

  Just more than a year ago, the Patriots drafted both Gronkowski and Hernandez in the 2010 NFL Draft in the second and fourth rounds, respectively.  While the Pats already had Alge Crumpler on the roster, Gronkowski was certain to get a fair share of action if he could stay healthy.  At 6'6" and 265 lbs., Gronkowski had been extremely productive at Arizona, though he certainly had notable injuries.

  Hernandez, on the other hand, had played on bigger stages surrounded by NFL talent at Florida.  More importantly, he had the experience of being paired with an NFL-caliber traditional tight end in Cornelius Ingram, whose season-ending injury before the Gators' 2008 championship season opened the door for Hernandez.

  By week 4, though, the pair's college exploits were relgated to wikipedia pages and fans in Tuscon and Gainesville; Gronkowski and Hernandez were meeting most rational expectations of them in their rookie years and likely exceeding many.  In week 1, Gronkowski helped the Pats hold off the Bengals by recording his first NFL touchdown.  In week 2 against the Jets, Hernandez topped 100 yards receiving.  The two combined to overcome a feisty Buffalo team in week 3, accounting for 108 receiving yards and a touchdown in the 38-30 victory.

  The two were beginning to change the Patriots' offense; what had utilized Moss over the top and Welker underneath was now more diverse and efficient.  Last year, Tom Brady threw the least interceptions of any year since he took over the offense in 2001, excepting 2008 where he sat out due to the knee injury.  He posted his second best yards/attempt and yards/catch rates of his career.  Largely due to Brady's MVP 2010 performance, the Pats finished with a league-best 14-2 record.  Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots discussed the effect of Gronkowski and Hernandez and the relative difficulty of the position:

  So what is is the impact?  What does this offense require?  What does it do to defenses?  Why am I asking myself questions?  Let's break it down into three main categories: possession, formation flexibility and sector stress.


  As we all know (or as you should know if you don't), some of the best pass-catchers in football history were tight ends: Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow (I, not II), and Tony Gonzalez all had elite hands.  So considering that adding a TE to a formation in place of a WR, you lose some speed and athleticism but add size and hands.  That being the case, maintaining possession and, obviously, not dropping catchable balls is essential to the offense.  Here's a great example from the aforementioned week 3 game between the Patriots and the Bills.  Brady is going to hit Hernandez on a simple out for about a dozen yards to set up a 43-yard field goal that would give the Pats a one-point lead at halftime:

  It's nothing spectacular, but the versatility Hernandez brings forces Drayton Florence to respect too many possibilities; as he curls off his route, he offers a nice window for Brady to throw into, finishing with a nice catch.  This play didn't come out of a 2-TE set, so why show it?  Because it sets this up:

  That was a variation of the smash concept we discussed two years ago.  Here, it's used to stress Leodis McKelvin's position.  It's the kind of first down play that efficient offenses pick up with regularity.  The Pats get a first down on 2nd and 6.  How often did the Rams turn that into 3rd and 6?  That's the difference.  Notice Hernandez was lined up at fullback to start the play (we'll get to this later) instead of the classic H-back spot.

  In any case, here's a play from the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl between Wisconsin and Miami.  See if you can link this to the scheme:

  It's a 2-TE set, with Garrett Graham (now with the Texans) to Tolzien's left.  Kendricks displays great catching ability, scooping the ball off the ground.  It earns a first down to extend a drive at the end of the half which results in points.  No, it's not the same play - it's the same concept.

Formation flexibility

  As I noted before, the use of the H-back allows for a TE to set up at multiple spots: TE, WR, FB or RB.  By pushing the player around the formation, it forces some kind of response from the defense to adjust to the switch.  Complicating things even further is the possibility of motion.  The H-back can play off the line next to the traditional TE and motion into another position.  Conversely, he can come out of the FB spot up into a receiving spot to begin the play.

  The skill set required to pull off the versatility of the position is complex, requiring athleticism, quickness and strength to be able to effectively threaten the defense from multiple positions; Kendricks has the traits, and the tape, suggesting he is more than capable.

  Check out this clip of two plays from the Wisconsin-Iowa game this year.  Notice in the first play, he's playing in the TE spot on the left side as the only tight end in the formation.  Following the reception on the first play (which shows off great awareness to curl his route right behind LB Jeremiha Hunter but in front of Brett Greenwood), the motion to open the second play is vital.  Kendricks slides behind the line to suggest an overloaded strong side with TE Jake Byrne before settling in at a forward FB spot, allowing him to slip behind the line for a second consecutive reception:

  Hold that sequence next to this play from Hernandez in the Patriots-Browns game in week 9:

  It's not complexity for complexity's sake; it's the capabilities the complexity affords an offense.  Having Hoomanawanui line up next to the tackle, at FB (as we saw at times last year) or in the H-back spot are all possibilities, and who knows how flexible McDaniels and Spags are going to be with respect to Kendricks.  But given his experience at Wisconsin and Bradford's management abilities, there's no reason Rams fans shouldn't be prepared to see a much greater degree of TE sophistication this year.  Especially given McDaniels' new favorite word...

Sector stress

  Bernie Miklasz wrote a great piece that summed up the modus operandi for the Rams in rounds 2-4.  In that piece, he had the bullseye quote:

"I think there's a fit," head coach Steve Spagnuolo said of his three new receivers. "I think we're flexible enough and versatile enough to take these players and use them wisely. I think it can go a lot of different ways, and I kind of like that. Because people that we're going to play have to look at it the same way: how are they going to do this? When you're unpredictable, that's the best way to be."

  So what stresses do the 2-TE system put on defenses?  What are the sectors or areas of the field that take on additional stress when facing this offensive approach?

  A good first look are the charts Will from RamsHerd drew up a few weeks ago.  This is a good graphical representation of the difference between a WR-laden offense (Denver) and a 2-TE offense (New England).  You'll notice the deep passes, especially down the lines, aren't a key part of the Patriots' offense.  Neither are the intermediate out zones.  That's because the key to the 2-TE set is managing possession and working the LB tier of the defense.

  First up, let's look a couple of plays made by Gronkowski in the AFC Division playoff game between the Pats and the Jets.  This clip comes from the Patriots' first drive of the game, and shows how the 2-TE game creates first downs while stressing a specific sector of the field.  In this case, it's on the weakside.  On both plays, Gronkowski is going to work against a non-LB.  On the first, he slips under CB Antonio Cromartie's zone; on the next play, he sells the block until taking the checkdown and blowing past DE Jason Taylor who had dropped into coverage.

  The real key is that in the first play, Gronkowski is involved with the sector stress.  In the second, he's the beneficiary of the stress on the opposite side drawing the focus away from the Jets' D.

  The plays are drawn up like this:



  Here's how the sequence played out:

  It's also notable that Gronkowski goes from the 2-TE set as a receiver to a single TE set as a blocking draw receiver in the second play.  That sets up a play in the second half where Alge Crumpler takes the blocking role and Gronkowski is the receiving TE with Hernandez on the sideline:

  The complexity of the multiple 2-TE sets makes it incredibly difficult to guard that portion of the field.  It's even more difficult if the defense gets caught in a playaction on a soft blitz.  Take this play from the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl where Wisconsin drew in Miami's linebackers to give Kendricks even more space:


  With the two tight ends and the single WR running thick posts, the intent is for Tolzien to see which LBs are drawn in by the blitz and then throw behind them.  Should all the linebackers maintain their spot, Montee Ball or Mickey Turner are checkdown options.  All three linebackers make an initial step toward defending the run, leaving plenty of room for Kendricks.  Here's how the play was run:

  The Rams have personnel to put more consistent stress on the underneath zones, but they have to improve their efficiency.  Here's a pair of consecutive plays from the Rams-Chargers game in week 6.  In the first, Hoomanwanui's at TE and Daniels Fells is lined up at WR.  The run the same exact in route (it's creepy how synchronized the routes are if you focus on both of them), but Bradford throws it just out of Fells' reach.  Luckily, it was only second down; on 3rd and 4, Fells is lined up at TE on the right side and crosses underneath Brandon Gibson and Mardy Gilyard for an easy first down:

  Too often, the Rams ran into the same inefficiency on third down as they did on second down on that clip, to say nothing of their first down limitations. The biggest strength in utilizing a second tight end with regularity is managing possessions, killing the clock and wearing down defenses.  Look at what the Patriots' offense looked like against the Bills:


  That's 24-points by the mid-3rd quarter.  The Rams scored more than 24 points in just three games last season.  It's not a cure-all, but if Josh McDaniels crafts the second year of the Sam Bradford era around the possession-extending capabilities of Lance Kendricks and Mike Hoomanwanui, it's likely to be a key positive shift for a Rams team that is on the verge of making the 2007-2009 years of inadequacy a distant memory.