One of the keys to New England’s 28-21 Week 1 win over the Steelers was their red zone success, where they were 4/4 with 4 TD’s. Three of the touchdowns came from a unique formation: Four Tight Ends and One Back– or “Aces.” Using a four Tight End set in this manner is difficult because it requires all four Tight Ends to be capable run blockers, and at least two of the tight ends to be above average receiving threats. The Patriots personnel fits; #47 Michael Hoomanawanui is a solid run blocker and #85 Michael Williams played Tackle for the Lions but Tight End at Alabama. Meanwhile, #88 Scott Chandler is an average run blocker and a massive target at 6’7 260. And of course, there’s all-world Tight End Rob Gronkowski. Let’s further analyze how the four Tight End set was used in Week 1 and how it will be used by New England going forward.
2nd Quarter, 4:06, 2nd & Goal at the 6:
On all 3 Touchdowns in the four Tight End set, #88 Scott Chandler is paired with #87 Rob Gronkowski (the pass catchers), while #47 “Hooman” is paired with #85 Mike Williams. The first time the Steelers see the formation, their Front 7 is in Bear with 2 Safeties and 2 Cornerbacks in man to man coverage behind it. The Patriots check to a stretch play action 2 man route with Gronkowski running a seam route and Chandler expanding to the back pylon:
Gronk is able to beat his man, who is frozen by a stretch play action. Steelers Safety Mike Mitchell (#23) attempts to peel back to Gronkowski after his man stays in protection, but is too late. Below are the End Zone and Field angles of the Touchdown:
3rd Quarter, 11:17, 2nd & Goal at the 1:
The second time New England comes out with four Tight Ends, the Steelers respond with their Goal Line personnel, with only 1 Defensive Back on the field. To start, #88 Scott Chandler is in the backfield as a Fullback. Prior to the snap, #47 Hooman shifts out wide to the right, taking the only Steeler Defensive Back with him. From there, Gronkowski and Chandler shift to the left:
With only 1 Defensive Back on the field, the Steelers shift out 2 linebackers to match up man to man with Gronkowski and Chandler. This is a mismatch Tom Brady will exploit 100% of the time. On the second TD from the four tight end set, the Patriots run a Slant-Flat combination:
Below is the Field All-22 angle for the 2nd Touchdown:
4th Quarter, 9:28, 3rd & Goal at the 1:
On the final four tight end play of the night, the Patriots start with the same shift as the prior Touchdown. The Steelers respond with the same exact personnel grouping. From the 1 yard line, there isn’t much choice but to play this type of heavy personnel. However, going forward, it will be interesting to see how opposing defenses match up with the four Tight End look from the 5 or 10 yard line. This time, the Patriots run a fade to Gronkowski for his 3rd TD of the night (with Chandler once again running to the flat):
Chess Match Going Forward
Future Patriots opponents have this tape to watch and may approach the four Tight End set differently. The first thing the defense could do is match linebackers to #47 Hooman and #85 Mike Williams side, while keeping better pass defenders (Safeties) on to Gronkowski’s side. Personnel choice will be key; is the best way to match up 3 Safeties to counter four Tight Ends? Teams will certainly live with either Hooman or Williams beating them in the pass game. Defenses can also counter by moving an extra defender out to make it 3 defenders over Chandler and Gronkowski. In Week 1, the Steelers covered all Tight Ends who shifted out with man to man coverage:
Bringing out an another defender toward Gronk/Chandler would help the pass defense, but would help the Patriots run game near the Goal Line immensely by lightening the box to 7 vs. 7. Defenses may choose this strategy inside the 10 yard line and dare the Patriots to run the ball in the red zone with a young offensive line.
The Patriots likely have only shown the tip of the iceberg with respect to the four Tight End, or “Aces” formation. Look for them to have several formational and motion variations as well as run a variety of plays from the personnel grouping. This formation may only have come about when Fullback James Develin was lost for the season, allowing for the coaching staff to come up with creative ways to use Tight Ends in the red zone.
If defenses do over commit to the pass against “Aces”, New England could split out Gronk and Scott Chandler to different sides of the formation as 6’6″+ fade targets. The Patriots could also put defenses in a bind by having Chandler, Hooman, and Williams to one side as a run heavy side with Gronk split out wide on the opposite side. This would force defenses to commit numbers to the run heavy side or leave Gronk 1 on 1. Either way, I look forward to the four Tight End look being used by New England in the red zone throughout the season.
WEEK 2 UPDATE
The Patriots cashed in again on the Goal Line with their 4 TE set week 2 against the Bills. Below, the Patriots show a similar shift causing confusion in the Bills secondary. This time, Gronkowski runs a short Dig route, with Chandler running a pivot. Gronkowski finds himself open in the back of the end zone:
Later in the game, the Patriots go back to the 4 TE set on the Goal Line, this time separating Chandler and Gronkowski to opposite sides. Gronkowski is double teamed on the bottom, and the Patriots get the 1 on 1 matchup they want, but the Bills break up the play:
Week 5 Update
The Patriots have traded away Tight End #47 Michael Hoomanawanui to the Saints. If the Patriots continue the 4 TE set, look for Tackle #77 Nate Solder to play as a TE on the goal line, as he played some TE in college and was used as an extra lineman/TE his rookie year.