Three Tight Ends Offensive Formation

This article has been adapted from with permission.

The next revolution in football may be the use of three tight end formations. Tight ends have recently become a centerpiece to many offenses with the like of Gates, Gonzalez, Crumpler, Scheffler, Witten, and others. What if a team had three such tight ends and began using them instead of wide receivers? Can you imagine defensive backs that weigh 190 pounds up against taller, 260 pound pass catching tight ends?

There have been three major milestones in the evolution of football

1. The forward pass (a play innovation)
2. Allowing OL to extend their hands and arms (a rule change)
3. The West Coast Offense and the Cover-2 counters (systems)

Step number four in the march of football ideas may very well be a change in positions. Just as the flankers and wings of yesteryear vanished, and the original fullback became the quarterback, the change in the future will be dramatic. The fullback will vanish, wide receivers will be halved in numbers, and tight ends will become the centerpiece of the game.

Before we go much further, I refer to an article that was recently published in The Sporting News, discussing the emergence of high quality, athletic, pass catching tight ends.

The article said a lot of nice things about Tony Scheffler while discussing the discovery of tight ends as a valuable commodity. But for now, consider this:

1. Football evolution is such that tight ends are becoming more prominent. The last great offensive system craze was the “west coast offense”. It was countered by teams running versions of the “cover two”. The answer to the cover two isn’t so much a scheme, but a position. Tight ends are designed to operate in the seam, which is the weak area of the cover two systems.

2. Most tight ends either block well or catch well, but all have to do both to some extent. Can’t block? You’d better be a darn good catcher or you can’t be a receiver. Can’t catch? You’d better be a darn good blocker or you won’t get on a team as an offensive lineman. The few tight ends who do both exceedingly well are a danger to any team. Few things scare a defensive coach more than having to guess if the tight end is blocking or going out for a pass. It can’t be schemed for, because you can only guess. The guessing becomes a nightmare when two or three solid tight ends are on a team.

Tight Ends… The Wave of the Future?

Mark my words: the tight end is the wave of the future in the NFL. It started a couple of years ago, and is gaining in momentum.

When I was coaching, I viewed tight ends the way most people viewed safeties before the dawn of guys like Atwater, Dennis Smith, Dawkins, and Reed. Now safeties are exceedingly important. There have always been a few rare, exceptional tight ends (Shannon Sharpe anyone?), but with the approaches to football in defensive scheming the last few years, the tight end figures to be a new powerful weapon.

Many NFL teams have recently been stockpiling great tight ends; New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and a few others. We have only seen three tight ends on the field a few times in the NFL, but imagine the possibilities.

What Is a Tight End?

The history of the tight end was pretty boring until the 1980s. At that point Joe Gibbs schemed in an additional tight end for quarterback protection. Before that, the role of the tight end was simply to block and, rarely, catch. In the past, it has always been to block.

Then came the 1990s and more emphasis on catching. Shannon Sharpe took the tight end position to newer and better places, then Tony Gonzalez did the same almost a decade later. In fact, the AFC West has enjoyed elite players at this position for a while, when you consider Sharpe, Gates, and Gonzalez. Shockey has played this role for the New York Giants organization and Crumpler for the Atlanta Falcons.

Historically, teams haven’t emphasized the position for a simple reason; “Why get a guy whose specialty isn’t catching? Let’s leave the catching to our wide receivers and give the quarterback added time to pass with a blocking tight end”. Further, you’ll find that most of these tight ends came from a basketball background, not football backgrounds. So they were never taught blocking, but rather were familiar with catching.

The future for tight ends looks even brighter as a perfect combination of circumstances has come together in a perfect storm.

Combating the Cover 2 Defense

First of all, the “cover two” system on defense gains in popularity each year. It is one of the very few systems that is designed to counter the popular “west coast offense”. But the tight end position, because of alignment next to the tackle, as well as the physical build of a tight end, ends up in the dangerous “seam”, where the cover-two is weakest. By the time an opposing defender gets to the tight end he has already taken a couple of steps, and is a physical mismatch for the likely swift safeties trying to bring him down.

Secondly, teams have discovered the many “smoke and mirrors” that can be accomplished with a tight end. Historically, if you line the tight end up next to the right tackle, defenses don’t know if he is going to block or catch. But now, when a defensive coordinator sees the offense bring in two wide receivers and one tight end he is likely to send in a 4-3 defense. Maybe he should have brought in a third cornerback because teams might line up the tight end in the slot. If the poor coordinator calls a nickle defense for the next formation (3 cornerbacks), the quarterback will audible to a run, and the tight end lines up next to (or motions) to the right tackle. In other words, an elite tight end ensures a mismatch until a defensive theorist develops a new formation or a new linebacker archetype to guard these tight ends.

Third, the recent move by many teams to return to the old 3-4 creates a special opportunity for tight ends. The danger with the 3-4 is picking up the blitz. With a two tight end set, the blockers are already up to the line and facing each outside linebacker. Threat neutralized. But with two tight end sets we quadruple the number of disguised packages the team has available on offense. Add in motions, and we create a playbook for tight ends that’s fatter than the playbooks of all of the other positions combined.

Fourth, teams have discovered that in two tight end sets they can compound-multiply the formations and abilities of an offense with alignments never before seen. The tight end revolution has reached this fourth point in the last couple of years, but it still hasn’t completely caught on and been fleshed out. No one would have ever lined up or motioned a tight end from the line back to a running back position. But it’s starting to happen. Denver started the craze of motioning a tight end to a fullback position on plays a few years ago.

Tight End Versatility

The tight end can now run block, or fake a screen set up while the quarterback boots to the opposite side. More and more, the two tight end sets (or even “twins” with both overloading one side) compound confusion by motioning one tight end (the max allowed by the rules) to a slot, near the quarterback, or to the other side of the line. Is this a heavy run play with three blockers, or a massive pass attack with 5 total eligible and capable receivers? Does the defensive coordinator send in a 4-3, or a dime (or even a quarter)? No matter what he does, the offense can audible. The offense will always be right! Scary. But that isn’t the doomsday scenario.

Fifth, the “magic 3 tight end theory”

Because competition for tight ends isn’t harsh right now, and because only a few teams are taking part in the revolution, and because the advanced tight end theories haven’t trickled down to colleges and even high schools (who have yet to go out of their way to recruit and scheme for the new tight end type), it is possible for a very few teams to get the “magic three”. Most teams still see the tight end as nothing more than a safety valve, and look at wide receivers as the primary pass catchers.

“This is the construct.” –Morpheus (The Matrix)

Three Tight Ends Formation Offense

Five offensive linemen, a quarterback, one running back, one wide receiver on the weak side, and three tight ends to the strong side. For years this formation has been discussed over drinks by coaches as the “dream” or “magic” second coming of classical football. The day when football comes full circle and returns to the 1930s and 1940s. The day when an offense is run the way it was always meant to run, but with the modern twist of the forward pass and advanced theories learned for the last century. Many coaches believe this formation will be the future of football, and revolutionize the way the game is played. Defensive coordinators, like me, consider it a nightmare. It will throw most defensive theory out of the window until a counter can be developed.

Why is the formation considered by football theorists to be magic?

The formation looks like a goal line formation. The only way to stop the run is to, likewise, set up a goal line defense. But what happens when those three tight ends, all a half step back from the line of scrimmage, are eligible to catch the ball? The subtle tricks are just as dangerous. Let’s say an opposing team lines up at least one cornerback to cover one of the tight ends. In a run play, that cornerback probably gets knocked on his butt. Not impressed yet?

Further, in the formation there is still room for motion. There is also room for one or more of the tight ends to line up wide. How about one wide, one slot, one back with the RB, then a motion brings the wide in against the line? All of a sudden a pass defense with multiple defensive backs faces a “jumbo” run play.

The new formations and the new approach would revolutionize many aspects of football. For example, most teams might have one very good cornerback in a formation (to go against the wide receiver), but place more emphasis on a cornerback/linebacker hybrid player to match with tight ends on the line. The safety position would likewise probably drop to only one on the field. The fullback would vanish all together. Tight ends who further specialize might become “wings” instead of “tight ends”. The tight ends and running back become the emphasis in the offense, not the quarterback or wide receiver. “Wings” would not only catch and block like modern tight ends, but run and block, further leading to confusion.

Another drastic change would be a shift from the “run vs. pass” paradigm to a paradigm of “power vs. finesse”. The new system could be run as a powerful smash mouth tool, or it could rely on deception and timing.

Would it take over the NFL and displace other systems?

No, it would not. Even the great “west coast system” is only run by a third of modern NFL teams. As defensive masterminds dig up their century old playbooks to find clues as to how to stop the “magic 3”, other teams will force defensive coaches not to over compensate. If a defense is built to counter the “magic 3”, it won’t be as effective against the other offensive systems.

Currently, several teams have a good tight end for the future. A few have two (Denver). One team is close to having all three (PITT), but isn’t there yet. That fact that Pittsburgh is doing as well as they are (just behind NE and IND) is a testament that they are moving in the right direction. But they still haven’t fully implemented the system because they still use an “Erhardt-Perkins” offensive system (a smash mouth system). They are however, positioned take advantage of the “three tight ends” if they continue in this direction.

In Denver’s first game of 2008, for the first few plays, Mike Shanahan flirted with the three tight end sets. He then switched to conventional ball. It’s on his mind and he is an offensive mastermind. Shanahan is a lot of fun though. He’s also played around with the old “option” plays seen in college too. My guess is that Shanahan would run a finesse version of the magic three system, while a team like Pittsburgh might run the smash mouth version.

Notably, the Patriots used the three tight end set for a series in the last regular season game in 2007 against the New York Giants. The offensive coordinator for New England at that time, Josh McDaniels, now coaches Denver and has many tight ends to play with.

Who is Using 3 Tight Ends?

Pittsburgh seems to be trying to move to the magic three, as is Denver. Other teams approach it and flirt with it, but no one seems to be trying it as much as New England, Denver, and Pittsburgh.

Is it done on purpose, or do teams realize they have the personnel?

Both. Most teams don’t want an extra “safety valve” when they can get something better. But when a team realizes they have a dangerous duo they seem to want to scheme them into the offense. On the other hand, Denver and Pittsburgh seem to have been loading up on tight ends, even though they haven’t gone all out with the magic three. However, both teams have run a few three tight ends in games, perhaps experimenting for the future.
Let’s take a look at some plays. The first play is an isolation pass play. The concept is to spread out the defense and get as many 1:1 match-ups as possible.

Here we see the wide receiver and the second tight end streak deep. The first tight end and the running back both bolt for opposite sides, and the third tight end takes his defender (likely a cornerback) towards the center of the field. If the defense is in zone, they have to hope that every zone is covered. This is not likely, since the offense will have been pounding the ball with a goal line looking formation for several plays.

But what if the defense goes to man coverage?

Tight End Offense

This looks complicated at first. The yellow arrows are the pass routes, the neon red circles are the defensive counters that show who is covering who. Note that I’ve also enclosed (in each circle) the ratio of defenders to receivers. This is how the play should turn out, assuming the defense reads the play and reacts perfectly, which isn’t likely.
The wide receiver streak or post gets covered by the cornerback and the free safety who moves to stop the deep threat. The second tight end takes the strong side linebacker deep on a streak (a probable mismatch in speed). The strong safety has to break the strong side to cover this deep streak threat.

Now we have the center of the field cleared where the third tight end takes the other cornerback or linebacker. If the defense has been getting run into the ground the third tight end is probably being covered by a fourth linebacker who is much slower than a cornerback. The coverage is one on one.

The first tight end takes the middle linebacker to the right edge of the field, one on one. The running back takes the weak side linebacker to the left sideline, one on one.
Other (more likely) pass plays include screens to the strong side (where the three tight ends are already blocking downfield), as well as multiple strong side floods (where receivers crowd an area).

Tight Ends in the Run Game?

How about the run game plays? Let’s take another look at the base three tight end formation.

In the above diagram, the first tight end can line up behind the right guard, behind and centered to the right guard/right tackle, or behind the right tackle. The third tight end can motion to any of the spots just mentioned. As the offensive line zone blocks with a rightward slant, the tight ends nearest the line join the zone, while tight ends behind the line look for opponents to take out (much like a fullback would).

The opponent’s weak side linebacker has to line up near the left tackle to account for the rare running play that goes weak side, so he is out of the play. The third tight end is likely run blocking a cornerback, and this is a mismatch.

There are more potential formation combinations that proceed from motions in a three tight end formation than any other formation in football. Because of the dual role of the tight end position, the formations become more difficult to adjust to. Here’s a simple example. Looking at the above diagram, picture the first tight end motioning to the right sideline before the play. Question: Does the defense

1. Take the cornerback on the third tight end out to cover the first tight end, while switching the middle linebacker to one of the remaining tight ends (leaving the strong side linebacker to figure out his coverage), or
2. Have the middle linebacker follow his man all the way to the edge of the field, leaving the middle of the formation exposed to a run?

Again, like with all other plays, the quarterback simply audibles based on what the defense does. In the first case the audible is for a deep pass to the third tight end, now uncovered by the cornerback. In the second case, the offense rushes the center, the defense now missing the middle linebacker. Wow?
Another possibility is to line up the third tight end as wide out or in the slot. The defense prepares for a pass, but the third tight end motions up against the second tight end (next to the right tackle). Uh oh, jumbo run formation. Wow?

Also consider that the third tight end can also run out out to the flats overloading the corner back on the right side. Then a pitch to the running back or even a swing pass to the running back would be even more effective. The possibilities are endless.

Three Tight End Offense Value

I’ve only touched on very basic and extreme examples. In the hands of a coach actually drawing up plays the mismatches can be further exploited, the formations expanded upon, and the obligatory motions improved upon. The bottom line is that whatever the defense shows, the audible takes the play in the completely opposite direction. The offense is always right! Amazed yet?
As stated earlier, coaches from offices to pubs to seminars have used the Magic 3 as a puzzle for defensive coaches to ponder. The day that a team has the depth at tight end and the courage to move beyond the current experiments we see occasionally, that will be the day that defensive coordinators fear most.

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