Bucs TEs Luke Stocker & Cam Brate - Photo by: Getty Images
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Excellent article. I am excited about this, because looks like we have the perfect tight ends to create confusion and mismatches on defense. i also think that two tight ends will also help our offense in all aspects. Keep the good work.
The possibilities of what O.J. Howard can do are pretty off-the-charts – which also helps Brate. Granted, he still has to do them in an NFL uniform, so we’ll see. But with the right coaching and using him properly, he could be a cornerstone in a vertical two TE system.
Once again, Cover 3 fails to disappoint. My only argument is that while you can’t make the Gronkowski/Howard direct comparison yet, it isn’t far fetched. Howard didn’t come from an offense that required him to run multiple route trees. When you look at how well he took coaching at the Senior Bowl, there is no reason to not believe he won’t become way more fluid in his routes. There is a strong argument to be made that he is a more complete blocker than Gronk is now. If Brate continues to improve on his blocking, there is no reason to believe that this duo won’t be the best two tight end combo in the league.
Now, what I want to know is what is the defense going to do when you come out with a three tight end set with Howard, Brate and Stocker/Auclair with Evans/ DJax as the receiver and Martin/McNichols in the backfield.
The match up possibilities could look like a Madden Game. I see a lot of defenses using their teams timeouts early in the second half.
This is why many believe a multi-TE offense is the probably the toughest to defend of all the offensive philosophies. It takes unique players, but if you’ve got them, what stops it? Defense would have to play nearly perfect.
I was surprised not to see your Senior Bowl footage with Engram and Howard. I know the footage wasn’t great but I don’t see how this is stopped with Howard and Brate. The defense will have to “guess” correctly. Which will leave something else wide open.
Oh, man, I totally forgot about that clip. That would’ve been a good one to use.
That’s what I was thinking, tnew. We have the horses to run 3 TE sets, even 4. And of course our WRs and RBs fit into the mix of personnel and play calling.
I really like Antony Auclair, and I expect we’ll see a lot of him.
Finally, I think with Brate,Howard, Stocker and Auclair, we really don’t need so many running backs … maybe Sims gets cut, since his pass catching skill is not so vital now with at least 3 TEs who are great receivers.
I’ll flip this around by saying that our defense is going to see a lot of two TE sets (and maybe even a few 3 and 4 TE formations) during practice so when teams like NE show up and attempt to run their multiple TE sets our defense should be much better prepared from going up against Brate, Howard, Stocker and Auclair.
I think the fans are really going to love this offense. There is a lot of talent and depth on the offense, this is going to be a fun team to watch this season.
Right. The better the offense, the better the defense (see what Alabama players say when they dominate big games in college).
When I watch practices, I always wonder whether a good play is good defense, good offense, or bad defense, bad offense. We won’t truly know until they play other teams.
I am very excited to see the Buccs improve their redzone TD %… especially on the road where I think Dirk had a tendency to get conservative. Red Zone Scoring Percentage (TD only) Home: 65%, Away: 39%.
Two TE sets with two legitimate pass catchers should help dramatically. I hope we see some 3 TE sets too! Whether its Stocker or Auclair picking up that third spot. Add in Mike Evans and Dirk can be conservative while still seeing that TD% go up!!!
Another great article, football juices are flowin
OJ will help the O be less predictable.
Last year when stocker was on the field I think the defense knew it would be a run now it will be a hard decision for a defense wether to play the run or pass.
I really enjoyed this article Trevor.
Any of the two tight end sets I think will be a challenge to defend. I would love to see them experiment with a “bunch” formation with Brate, Howard, and a wide receiver. Use Evans as the wr in the red zone. Maybe Djax in other parts of the field. Maybe start in a two tight end set and motion to a bunch (If it’s legal).
Howard is the key to the playbook opening up. I am still amazed he lasted until the 19th pick in the draft.
Thanks Trev for another good article. Go Bucs!
I’m also thinking, wow, our “heavy” formation for short yardage goal line plays also just got a lot more interesting with our talent in the TE crew. Pass or run? The D will never know!
Or put in three TEs, such as Brate, Howard, and AuClair and have them all go deep along with Jackson and then have our HB run to the flank and take the pass and have our TEs all turn into downfield blockers. That gives us the potential for HB scores despite the fact we don’t have break away backs like Cook who can easily take it to the house. If we face a team with two excellent speed rushing DEs, just put Howard and AuClair on the outside of our two Tackles and chip block on those speed rushers, giving the Tackles the time to get in position to hold them up and then release both TEs to go downfield for passes. With more time you know Jameis is going to be deadly in the passing game. Great work, Trevor!!!
Put both on the line and watch defenses scramble to figure out if it is a run or pass.
I’ve been really liking the Howard pick the more I think about it. And from the “Winston-to-O’Leary” days, we know Jameis loves the tight end.
My thought is this. Shotgun formation with the max number of wideouts. Two tight end set. Sidecar right/left. Brate can assist the RB/FB sidecar with blocking. This gives Jameis the max amount of time to find an open wideout/Howard downfield as he quickly goes through his progressions. Bucs offense is going to TORCH defenses this year. A fan can hope, right?
BTW – please excuse the tacky profile pic…. trying to figure out how to get rid of it. It was a joke gone bad….
This personnel group probably won’t be used too much… But a OJ out wide and Cam in-line with Godwin on the outside on the opposite side of the field and Mike in the slot will be pretty scary to deal with….
Throw Simms in the backfield and one or two of those guys will have one on one matchups. Have to imagine we capitalize on that more often than not.
Not to mention our backs are pretty good pass blockers so should give Jameis time to capitalize on those one on ones..
Great stuff as always, Trevor. For us fantasy junkies, any insight or predictions on Brate and Howard yet in terms of snaps, targets, and TDs?
I want to draft Brate but I’m concerned about regression now that we have Howard and other weapons for Jameis.
Thanks and Go Bucs!
One of my many dream setups with Howard and OJ consist of us coming out in a pistol set with Brate in-line on the strong side and Howard as an H-back on the weak side. From there, we pull Howard across the formation on a traditional power run to the strong side. Easy yardage, IMO. Later in the same game, we come out in the exact same look, pull Howard across, and fake the handoff. OJ runs into the flat and into a wheel route if he doesn’t get the ball early. Brate runs a corner route. We stretch the defense vertically if they’re in zone, and their defenders (at least one and maybe two linebackers) can’t hang with them in man coverage.
Again, just one of many 2 TE concepts that give me an absolute rager.
Another is to imagine Evans split out wide to the left by himself. On the right side, we have a 3 receiver bunch in close to the line comprised of DJ, Howard, and Brate, with one of the latter in closest to the line of scrimmage. Set the RB off on the opposite side of James out of shotgun. There are, of course, obviously a thousand plays you can run out of a look like this. I just love the idea of this formation and how defenses would have to figure out how to possibly defend it. You can run a sweep with Doug with Brate and Howard setting the edge, or run a play action with one of the big guys running a skinny post and the other running a slant underneath him. And the whole time, Mike’s getting one on one coverage on the other side to wreak havoc over there.
Ugh. I so, so badly hope that having Howard and Brate on the same team works out the way I/we think it’s going to. This has the potential to be incredibly special. I really don’t want to be disappointed here, lol.
This is all great information. The addition of Howard also has the potential to make our run blocking game elite. I would take what Trevor said a step further: a guaranteed 5 yards a running play means you own the defense. The offense can control down and distance and dictate the play. And we all know that Jameis loves to make big throws from play action. I can see a couple two/three running plays from multiple tight end sets setting up opposite field bombs to a single covered Evans or D-Jax.
I have never been this excited about a Bucs offense….EVER…They are going to need extra gunpowder for the cannons!
Terrific Cover 3 Trevor! All the breakdowns & possibilities are outstanding. I didn’t think it was possible to be more excited to have OJ Howard- until this lol! Go Bucs!!
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