The New England Patriots revealed a four tight end package against the Steelers and I said that it was the perfect set for the goal line and would give the offense a great match-up every single time. Now the quartet is down to a trio.
Head coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio orchestrated a trade that sent the 4th tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, to the Saints in exchange for a quality rotational defensive lineman. It's a trade that improves the roster and makes sense, but it appears to affect the Patriots goal line package on the surface.
How can you have a four tight end package with just three tight ends on the roster?
With Hoomanawanui as health scratch against the Jaguars, the Patriots used running back Brandon Bolden in the extra blocker role.
Bolden joins Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, and Michael Williams (the three tight ends) and LeGarrette Blount (the running back). What's important about the formation is that it doesn't matter one bit who the fifth skill player is on the field, so long as it entices the opposing defense to line up with another linebacker on the field. If the defense brings on a defensive back instead of a linebacker, then the Patriots will just run the ball and win due to the size advantage.
But Bolden, like Hoomananawanui, isn't used as a target in the formation. There are just three real options: 1) throw to Gronkowski; 2) throw to Chandler; 3) run with Blount. The option is decided based upon the motion of the Patriots players and the opposing personnel. Williams is always an additional blocker, although he'll probably be targeted at least once out of this formation later in the season.
Bolden is essentially a red shirt for the offensive scheme, who acts as fodder for the opposing defense to tip their hand. In the above scenario, Bolden is the first player motioned and the Jaguars send a defensive back into coverage. If Jacksonville covered Bolden with a linebacker, then perhaps the Patriots would just decide to run the ball.
With Bolden drawing the defensive back, Tom Brady moves into his next motion, sending Chandler and Gronkowski to opposite sides of the field to see where the safety is drawn and how the the defense covers Chandler. Since there are two cornerbacks on the field, one is definitely going to trail Gronkowski wherever he goes.
When Chandler motions outside, a linebacker slides into coverage of Bolden, bumping the defensive back further wide against the tight end. This means that the safety position would dictate how the Patriots respond.
If the safety draws towards Gronkowski, then he stops being a target and turns into a decoy as other players will have better match-ups. If the safety drifts over Chandler and Bolden, that leaves Gronkowski on an island and the Patriots will take that match-up every single time.
The only time Bolden might actually be a target would be if the safety and cornerback cover Gronkowski, a cornerback covers Chandler, and slower linebacker covers the running back.
Pulpiteer DNOMN8R314 has highlighted a few players that could take over Hoomanawanui's role. This is likely where a fullback like James Develin would have plenty of receiving opportunities. I would be interested in a hybrid approach with two running backs on the field (Dion Lewis can catch the ball outside and run inside) and three tight ends.
The loss of the fourth tight end only changes the title of the formation, not the content or execution. It's about creating mismatches with linebackers and isolating Rob Gronkowski on the outside, and there are plenty of players on the roster who can fill the vacancy.