Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Believe it or not, there was a time when substitutions weren’t allowed in professional football.
In the 20’s and 30’s, due to less people playing the game of football professionally and therefore much smaller roster sizes, you’d have your full team of starters who played offense, but then when the ball flipped sides, the wide receivers would play as defensive backs, the offensive linemen would play as defensive linemen, and the others would fill in as linebackers – this was call the “one-platoon system” or iron man football.
But, in the 40’s and 50’s the game evolved with the world around it thanks to inventions like McDonalds, nuclear weaponry and The Slinky – none of those have anything to do with this.
After the free substitution rule was legalized in the early 1940’s, players began to specialize on one side of the ball. No longer did they have to focus on offense and defense, but rather, could perfect their craft at one position. However, that left certain professional players in awkward positions. Due to the nature of specializing at each position, some “tweener” players – who had talent – didn’t exactly fit a specific position within the common schemes of that era.
This is how the tight end position was born.
Too big to play wide receiver, but not big enough to play offensive line; that was the story of tight ends. For the next 50 years, the NFL would try to find the best way to use these hybrid players, and you could argue they’re still trying to maximize everything their mismatch potential can be today in the modern age.
The role of the tight end began probably how you though it would, mainly as blockers. For most of their early life, tight ends were just used as a sixth blocker on either side of the line to help the run game. But, in the 60’s, players like Mike Ditka changed things. Ditka, who had size and good hands, showed the NFL world what it was like to have a security blanket on passing downs with a tight end over the middle. Most of early pass catching work from tight ends involved drag routes with across or to the outside, but that simple safety net grew roots for a blossoming position.
In the 80’s, players like Kellen Winslow Sr. were featured as tight ends but running wide receiver-like routes. No longer was it just a few steps then to the left or right in a straight like. A famous offensive coordinator, Don Coryell, had Winslow as a major receiving piece of his vertical offense in San Diego, and the result was Winslow becoming the forefather of what we would call the modern day tight end. Winslow was the first tight end to really be swung out in motion off the line of scrimmage and matched up against cornerbacks. In an era void of current-day safeties or linebacker having elite athletic traits, Winslow was a mismatch nightmare due to his size.
From there, in the 1990’s, Shannon Sharpe expanded what tight ends were capable of as pass catchers. Sharpe, known for his diverse route running, became the first tight end in NFL history with over 10,000 career receiving yards. After him, we got names like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, two of which continue to keep defensive coordinators up at night to this day.
In the 2000’s, once teams started figuring out how to best use one tight end as a mismatch, the idea then came along to double the fun with two. The most famous modern day case is when Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots combined Aaron Hernandez with Rob Gronkowski.
At their peak, that tight end duo was a nightmare unlike any other for defenses. Either tight end could set up in-line, as an H-back (in the backfield) or even in the slot as a third wide receiver, and where the fun really began is when they started doing two out of those three on any given play.
There’s one example from Bleacher Report back in 2012 that explained a certain play like that. Hernandez was lined up as the H-back in the backfield with Gronkowski as a slot player on the opposite side. Once the defense shifted towards Hernandez’ side (as it was the strong side), Gronkowski motioned to that side as well. Now, think of what the defense was up against. For one, any run to that side would have been heavily fortified and would have taken a great push to hold the offense to anything less than five yards – any time you can get five yards on demand, you win. Next, with the strong side linebacker now shifted to that side, he was either going to have to cover Hernandez or Gronkowski by himself – a mismatch. Then, if both players were to go out, a safety would also have to get involved, which meant there was then two one-on-one mismatches and no help to a deep route on the outside.
Playing two tight ends has been a game changer for the reasons above, and honestly, if you have the players to run it, it’s the most dangerous offense for a defense to try to stop.
On the next page we’ll examine some possibilities and plays that show just how effective two tight end sets can be.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
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