New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was in absolute command of his offense in 2015, distributing the football at will to an always-changing cast of characters. It seemed as if Brady had ascended to another level of football potential during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX and that carried over to the 2015 season.
From a mental standpoint, it's hard to argue that 2015 Brady was playing at the highest level of his career. But from a physical perspective? Oh, man, just plug in a tape of the 2011 opener against the Miami Dolphins and you'll realize how lethal Brady can be, distributing the ball to every single level of the field with pinpoint precision.
Heck, Matthew Slater even snagged a 46-yard reception. That's how on point Brady was during his 32/48, 517 yards, and 4 touchdown performance.
While the Patriots went on to lose the Super Bowl, the offense kicked off a modern-era revolution in the usage of tight ends as the duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez absolutely annihilated their opponents at every turn. The two combined for 13 receptions, 189 yards, and 2 touchdowns against the Dolphins, and the rest of the season was more of the same.
New England hopes to rekindle that two-tight end offense in 2016. The Patriots shipped a 4th round pick to the Chicago Bears for tight end Martellus Bennett (and a 6th round pick), with the Gronkowski-Bennett pairing transforming the offense.
The 2011 offense was a terrifying mix of Gronkowski and Hernandez at tight end, Wes Welker and Deion Branch at wide receiver, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead at running back. Okay, maybe the running backs weren't terrifying, but the tremendous ability of the receivers allowed for the backs to shine.
The Patriots will field Gronkowski and Bennett at tight end, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola (maybe), and Chris Hogan at wide receiver, and Dion Lewis at running back. It's possible that the 2016 offense could be even more dangerous than the 2011 version.
I watched some of the 2011 offense to see how the Patriots used their tight ends, and how the tight ends made it impossible for the defense to ever feel comfortable when facing a single formation. I have color coded the individual plays, and will explain how each play builds off the other to make the defense even more unbalanced.
Orange: A simple off-tackle run. Gronkowski will block the defensive end, while Hernandez will take on the linebacker. The running back has to make one defensive back miss in order to generate positive yards.
Red: A simple run up the gut. Hernandez peels to the outside to freeze the safety and to draw a linebacker away from the hole as the nearside linebacker attempts to stop the orange play. Gronkowski cracks inside to clear out any potential tacklers.
The running back just runs forward.
Sienna: Gronkowski and Hernandez both run verticals. They generally ran this against single coverage, when the safety was cheating over to the far side to defend the two receivers, and when the defense was playing tight or press coverage, thinking they might have to defend the red or orange running plays. The Gronkowski seam pass is a staple in the offense and the middle linebacker has to drop to an appropriate depth to cover
Blue: Gronkowski runs a corner and Hernandez runs an out route. While they are both viable targets, the alternative goal is to clear the linebackers out of the middle of the field like with sienna so the slot receiver has free reign for yards after the catch, coming across from the far side.
Gray: Hernandez runs a vertical, while Gronkowski runs a deep in route. Usually accompanied by two verticals from the far side receivers to clear a lane for Gronkowski, although a shallow out and a shallow cross will draw the defenders up and reduce the number of defenders Gronkowski has to beat down the field.
If the linebackers mess up their coverage, thinking they have to defend the seam like in sienna, or have to stay in position to defend a shallow cross like in blue, then Gronkowski should be open without a defender in the passing lane. If the linebacker and safety do their jobs with Gronkowski, Hernandez probably has single coverage and a hole lot of space to run on the near side.
Green: Gronkowski runs a vertical, while Hernandez sits in the open zone with a curl. Generally, the inside linebacker will need to get to the proper depth to take away the Gronkowski seam like in sienna, while the defender covering Hernandez is thinking about keeping outside leverage to defend the out route like in blue or over the top to defend the vertical like in gray.
It's likely Hernandez had an option route that allowed him to sit or run, depending on the type of coverage and where the defender was located.
Pink: Gronkowski runs a vertical, while Hernandez runs a crossing route. This is nearly identical to green, but if the defender sits in the zone, then Hernandez has the momentum to cross the formation and create separation from whatever player is in his way. This can also be combined with a shallow cross from the slot receiver to ensure someone gets open.
This is just one formation and there were more tweaks based upon where other players aligned. Bennett will likely take on Hernandez's function in the offense due to his ability to force defenders to miss in the open field. Pro Football Focus says there have only been three tight end seasons with 20+ forced missed tackles; one is Hernandez, the other two are Bennett.
An offense with Gronkowski, Bennett, Edelman, Amendola/Hogan, and Lewis will create nightmares for opposing defenses since they can run over all levels and regions of the field, can run or pass the ball, and can do it all out of one formation. Good luck to 2016 defensive coordinators.