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Summer School: Rhett Ellison, Evan Engram, And The Two-Tight End Offense

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Could the Giants use more two tight end sets?

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

It shouldn’t be news to anyone who watches the New York Giants that their offense was stagnant and predictable in 2016. They need to improve, and improve a lot, in 2017 if they want to make a run in the playoffs.

In the NFL there are two ways to really get ahead.

The first (and more tried) way is to do something familiar with better players than the other team is able to counter. Taking a familiar scheme and having players that are just too good for their counterparts on the other side of the ball to beat. Essentially, that is what nearly every team tries to accomplish every off-season in free agency and the draft — build themselves a decisive advantage in talent.

The other way is to field a team that is built and plays in such a way that the rest of the league just isn’t able to cope with it. That way is much less common. It needs a coaching staff and front office able to get ahead of trends in the game, conceive of a new scheme, find the players to fit in it, and make it all work.

The teams that can do that are rare, and if they can pull it off, can find their way to dominance. Teams are always looking for new ways to win, but few are able to really pull it off.

The Miami Dolphins dethroned the New England Patriots in 2008 with the Wildcat offense, but that was quickly solved by defenses around the league and is now just a gimmick play. Later, teams like the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and others tried to import the Read/Option offense from the college ranks. It has had some success, the speed and intelligence of NFL defenses, and the punishment they can heap on quarterbacks, makes it unsustainable.

The Seahawks did hit on a new take on defense, their 3-4/4-3 “Hybrid” defense, which helped make them one of the top teams in the NFC and very nearly back-to-back Super Bowl winners.

Their second trip to the Super Bowl ended in a loss to the New England Patriots, who in 2010 unleashed a retooled offense on the NFL — an offense that is still dissecting defenses.

After the receiver-based spread offense that powered them to an 18-1 record in 2007 fell apart in the 2009 season, the Patriots drafted a pair of tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and built their passing attack around them. Always a flexible mind, Bill Belichick saw that tight ends were becoming more and more athletic, and that NFL defenses were either too small or too slow to deal with them.

The pay-off was immediate.

In 2009, Tom Brady threw 28 touchdowns to 13 interceptions (not dissimilar to Eli Manning’s 26:16 ratio in 2016). A year later, his touchdown to interception ratio rocketed to 38:5 with their re-tooled offense.

Six years later — nearly an eternity in the NFL — the Patriots are still using the same basic concepts in their offense to great effect.

Last year the Giants used a “standard” three-receiver (or “11” personnel) package on more than 90 percent of their offensive plays. It may not have been the plan in June, but an injury to Will Johnson robbed them of their anticipated “starting” tight end/H-back. Based on his two years as the Giants’ offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo is a big fan of the “11” personnel package, but constraints on the available personnel pushed it to the extreme.

The Giants could certainly use an offensive renaissance like the Patriots’ had in 2010, and in signing Rhett Ellison and drafting Evan Engram, that is what they could be eyeing a move in that direction.

Advantages Of The Two-Tight End Package

Flexibility

The “12” personnel package, or two-tight end set, is exactly what it says it is — an offensive formation that features two tight ends. However, the improving athleticism of players at the tight end position makes it much more flexible than it sounds.

While both tight ends can be at the line of scrimmage in a traditional alignment, they can also be moved around the offensive formation.

More than just particularly svelte offensive tackles, modern tight ends can be employed in a variety of ways. From the traditional “Y” position in-line, next to an offensive tackle, to the slot position, to the backfield as a “fullback,” and even flexed out wide as wide receiver.

Those are just a few variations that can be run from one formation (the shotgun) and personnel grouping. Having larger, receiving targets like tight ends allows offenses to create and exploit mismatches, such as matching a tight end on a cornerback or safety in coverage.

NFL offenses can run a variety of plays from any offensive set, but the two-tight end set is more balanced and flexible than most, thanks to the blend of size and athleticism of the modern “hybrid” tight end. This forces the defense to honor the potential for either while also being able to adapt to the defense on the fly.

From a single formation, the Patriots are able to run seven (7) different plays based on match-ups and what the defense shows.

(via Pats Pulpit: Read the whole post HERE)

Efficiency

While Eli Manning posted the second-best completion percentage of his career in 2016, inefficiency was a problem for the offense. Manning’s yards, yards per pass, and touchdown numbers all dropped from the previous seasons, while his interception total rose. Likewise, the Giants converted 289 first downs (down from 331) and their points per game dropped from 420 (26.5 per game) in 2015 to 310 (19.4) in 2016. A combination of preference and available personnel dictated that the Giants stay in one personnel package nearly every snap, and constricted their playbook, making the offense predictable. The result was an inefficient attack that often sputtered and left points on the field.

Stats and analytics website Numberfire examined the five most two-tight end heavy offenses (greater than 50 percent of plays in 12 personnel) from 2009 to 2013 for a sample size of 25 team seasons. In examining those 25 seasons, they found that the two-tight end set has a distinct statistical advantage in efficiency over three-receiver (11) or two-running back (21) personnel sets.

Numberfire used Net Expected Points (NEP), a metric that measures how much a particular play increases the chance of scoring, to examine the data. They found that compared to non-12 personnel, the two-tight end set was more likely to lead to points, with a +32.77 NEP (+.04 per play, +.08 per passing play) advantage. Looking at just passing plays, the 12-personnel package +34.18 NEP advantage. And while a lot of that is due to Tom Brady and New England’s offensive machine, the package still enjoyed a +12.06 passing NEP advantage.

In real numbers, Numberfire found that the 12-personnel package resulted in more points scored on fewer drop backs and a higher success rate over 11 or 21 personnel packages.

Protecting The Quarterback

Father Time is undefeated, and he’s coming for Eli Manning. Nobody knows how many more years of good football Manning has left, but it’s certainly fewer than he has already played.

When it comes to protecting an aging, mostly immobile pocket passer, no team has a better plan than the Patriots. And the two-tight end set is definitely a part of that.

While Tom Brady was serving his four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 season, the Patriots only employed their two-tight end set on just 30 percent of plays. For a team featuring both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, that is remarkably low. When Brady returned in Week 5, however, that number jumped almost immediately to 60 percent of their offensive snaps. Obviously, the Patriots consider that personnel grouping to be their best, and base, package with Brady under center. Not only does it give Brady more of a run game to fall back upon than a 3-receiver set, it also allows him to use his considerable football IQ to dissect the defense and exploit the match-ups having two good tight ends is able to create.

While Manning is more athletic than Brady and has much more “gunslinger” in his game than the Patriots’ quarterback does, they do have traits in common. Both are very intelligent and insightful — both David Carr and Tim Hasselbeck have said that Eli is the brightest quarterback they’ve ever been around — and routinely use their intelligence and preparation to beat defenses before the ball is even snapped. As well, both are pure pocket passers, and are at their best working from within the pocket. Finally, both are excellent at throwing with touch, accuracy, and anticipation on every throw a quarterback is routinely asked to make. The two-tight end set offers the option to create mismatches down the field while also providing additional blocking or a “safety blanket” shallow, which fits well with both quarterbacks’ games.

Considering the advantages of the set and Manning’s similarities with the Patriots’ signal caller, it certainly would make sense to adopt some of New England’s schemes.

What It Could Look Like

We’ll go back to 2014 to see what the Patriots’ 12 Personnel Package looks like, and how it could impact the Giants’ offense. After a down 2013 that saw the arrest of Aaron Hernandez, the departure of Wes Welker, and a season lost to injury for Gronkowski, the Patriots re-tooled their personnel to get back to what worked so well from 2010 through 2012. The most shocking part of the re-loading was the trade of guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Tim Wright. At the time, Mankins was a 32-year-old six-time Pro Bowl player, while Wright was a fringe player on the verge of being cut.

However, the addition of the undersized but athletic and versatile Wright returned an important component to the New England offense.

Play 1

For our first play, a tight end won’t be getting the ball. Instead, we’ll see how having two big and dynamic options opens things up for smaller receivers.

The Patriots are in their “12” personnel package, but the empty set with running back Shane Vereen split out wide (offensive right) gives it the appearance, and effect, of a spread three -receiver set.

Wright is lined up at the line of scrimmage just off the right tackle, while Gronkowski in-line next to the left tackle.

The play is designed to get Brandon LaFell open on the outside (offensive left), so let’s see how the two tight ends contribute to that.

Wright runs an “In” route down the seam of the defense, drawing the weak-side linebacker’s coverage underneath and freezing the deep safety on that half of the field.

On the other side of the formation, Gronkowski runs a flat route out toward the sideline. His job is to draw the coverage of the strong-side linebacker underneath. Next to Gronkowski, the slot receiver runs a “go” route down the other seam, drawing the middle linebacker and other deep safety in coverage.

Those three routes combined draw all the coverage either underneath or to the offensive right, leaving LaFell on an island with the cornerback. LaFell makes the easy 12-yard catch, and keeps the offense rolling.

This concept can work with other personnel groupings, but the blend of size and athleticism used by the Patriots limits the defense’s options, forces its hand, and creates a very favorable match-up on the outside.

Play 2

A few plays later the Patriots are knocking on the door of the end zone. They are still in their 12-personnel set with Wright and Gronkowski as the tight ends, Vereen is the running back, Julian Edelman is the slot receiver and LaFell is the wide receiver.

They line up with three receivers to the left, with Edelman in the slot and Wright detached. Vereen is in the backfield and Gronkowski is lined up as the in-line tight end next to the right tackle. And once again the Patriots use this personnel package’s blend of size and athleticism to create an easy reception.

At the bottom of the formation LaFell runs a post route, forcing the corner to the outside and freezing the safety. Next to him, Edelman fakes a quick corner route to freeze the slot corner.

Skipping over Wright for the moment, let’s take a look in the backfield. Vereen runs a post-corner route, drawing coverage from both the outside linebacker and the cornerback. Gronkowski runs a variation of a post route, drawing coverage of the outside linebacker, middle linebacker, and the safety to his side.

All of those together, particularly the routes by Edelman and Gronkowski create a relatively massive void in the defense for Wright. With two receivers effectively drawing four or five defenders in coverage, Wright is about as open as a receiver can possibly be in the end zone from the 4-yard line.

Again, these concepts aren’t limited to the two-tight end set, but the contrast between the speedy and agile receivers and the bigger tight ends creates a unique set of match-up issues for the defense. Those issues stress the defense in ways that other personnel groupings don’t, and the Patriots exploit that.

Ballard and Beckum

Finally, let’s hop back in the Wayback Machine again and jump back another three years to 2011, because Giants’ fans may already have had a sneak preview of what the pairing of Ellison and Engram could look like.

Two years earlier the Giants drafted one of the first identifiable “modern” hybrid tight ends in Travis Beckum. Drafted from Wisconsin, Beckum was regarded as very undersized for a tight end at 6’3”, 234, but possessed rare (at the time) athleticism for the position, in line with Hernandez and later Jordan Reed.

While the pick was potentially prophetic in the direction that the tight end position would be headed, Beckum himself largely languished in an offense that didn’t have a place for him.

In 2011 the Giants lost tight end Kevin Boss to free agency and promoted undrafted free agent Jake Ballard from the practice squad to replace him. Ballard would quickly become the starter and a fan favorite thanks to his bruising style with the ball in his hands.

On this play, however, the Giants put the two of them together, and we got a brief glimpse of what could have been and may yet be.

This is is the third play of the first drive of the game against the undefeated Green Bay Packers. The Giants were in a “12” personnel set with Manning under center, Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield, and Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham out wide. Ballard is lined up in-line next on the offensive right and Beckum in the slot, a place normally held by emerging super-star Victor Cruz.

The Packers are in a Cover 1 defense, with man coverage across the board. Both Ballard and Bradshaw stay back to block, while Nicks, Manningham, and Beckum attack downfield.

Nicks runs a deep route, with a corner-post double move at the top of his stem. That route combined with Nicks’ ability as a receiver draws the free safety to his side of the field, giving Beckum and Manningham 1-on-1 match ups.

Manningham runs a comeback route, drawing his receiver in to defend the first down marker and giving plenty of room for Manning to get the ball to Beckum.

The slot corner initially gambles that Beckum will be running the short route and covers the first down marker, but Beckum runs right by him and he is unable to recover. Because Nicks drew the the free safety to the other side of the field, there is no help over the top. With the protection afforded by keeping Ballard and Bradshaw back to block, Manning has plenty of time to get the ball to Beckum in stride. From there he outruns (and jukes) the defensive backs on his way in for a touchdown (which limited gif length doesn’t show).

Final Thoughts

In 2016 the Giants relied almost entirely on the three-receiver “11” personnel grouping. And while it is mathematically possible to play even more of it, it is unsustainable. Nor is it likely that they will, given that signing tight end Rhett Ellison was a priority for the Giants, and they went so far as to double-dip and select a tight end in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. Considering the emphasis they have put on acquiring tight ends, it’s likely that we will see much more of the “12” personnel package in 2017.

With a receiving trio like Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Brandon Marshall, it’s probably unlikely that they will perfectly ape the Patriots and use two tight ends on the majority of their plays, it’s still a good idea to look at the team that has used the package the best and take lessons from them.

The Giants’ pairing of Ellison and Engram is unlikely to have the explosive potential that the Patriots found in Gronkowski and Hernandez back in 2010. It is more likely to echo (though hopefully surpass) Ballard and Beckum in 2011, or perhaps Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis in San Francisco.

A potential wild card thrown in the mix is the development of Jerell Adams and Matt LaCosse. Both tight ends have similar size and athleticism to Gronkowski, but both are also fighting for roster spots.

One thing is for sure: After a year, much like 2009 for the Patriots, that saw the Giants’ offense crippled by rigidity and a shallow talent pool, they have added pieces to give themselves much greater variety in plays and players to draw upon. The two-tight end set certainly figures to be a big part of that.