The New England Patriots were excited about the return of tight end Martellus Bennett because he could have provided a great boost to the goal line offense. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves the 4-tight end offensive package, with a running back in the backfield, because it’s nearly impossible to defend.
Rob Gronkowski can block and catch. Dwayne Allen can block and he’s showing improvement as a receiver. Jacob Hollister can catch and is working on his blocking, and Bennett would have been a nice boost over the rookie due to his versatility. Instead, they’ll have to rely on fullback James Develin and the receiving abilities of the running backs.
Patriots tried to use the four tight end set in 2015 with Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Michael Williams, and Michael Hoomanawanui, but traded Hooman to the New Orleans Saints for defensive tackle Akiem Hicks before the end of September. They did not have Develin on the roster as he was out for the year with a broken leg.
The idea is simple. The Patriots have three tight ends by the line of scrimmage and a fullback in the backfield ahead of the running back. It’s a power-run package and it forces opposing defenses to get heavier to stop the run- and that means getting slower and weaker in coverage.
That opens the door for the Patriots to flex the tight ends wide since they’re all threats to catch the football. Gronkowski is an easy win for New England if he’s covered by a linebacker, and Bennett would have been, too. Hollister and Allen are both good enough to force teams to consider using a defensive back in coverage.
And so the Patriots can flex out players in a certain order to draw a certain match-up. They move Hollister around to see which safety is going to move with him in coverage and can flex the tight end out wide, effectively removing a defensive back from the equation. Opposing teams won’t give up a linebacker to cover Hollister because the Patriots still have Gronkowski, Allen, and Develin as blockers and could win on the ground, so they have to use a defensive back.
Then, the Patriots can move either Gronkowski or Allen to the opposite side of the formation where the player covering Hollister can’t help out. With that defensive back out of the picture, then Gronkowski or Allen should have a favorable match-up against a linebacker or the weaker coverage safety.
Finally, the Patriots can decide to flex either Rex Burkhead or Dion Lewis or Develin (or both) out of the backfield to take full advantage of the run-heavy defensive front. No team has four players capable of covering Gronkowski, Allen, Hollister, and Burkhead or Lewis, while also being stout against the run, so this formation really gives New England a favorable advantage.
And they used it three times against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Q1 (11:46) 2-2-MIA 2 R.Burkhead left tackle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The Patriots line-up with two clear lanes for James Develin to block: outside of Nate Solder at left tackle and outside of LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle. There are gaps in the formation for the Patriots to run through.
Hollister (#47) motions back-and-forth across the formation to draw the attention of the safety and to try and give the Patriots an advantage with momentum. In this numbers game, the Dolphins have four players guarding the left side, with Gronkowski, Solder, and Develin providing blocks for New England. Joe Thuney also reach blocks to his left to allow Solder to climb and take away the linebacker.
Adding Hollister gives the Patriots a minor advantage and creates a large enough hole for Burkhead to score. You can be certain that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels noted that there was only one defensive back on the field against this formation and they followed Hollister.
Q2 1-1-MIA 1 (9:14) R.Burkhead left guard to MIA 1 for no gain (C.Allen, K.Alonso).
The Patriots run the exact same play in the second quarter and the Dolphins counter with the exact same defensive package and only one defensive back. Tom Brady snaps the ball faster on this one to try and create some congestion on the inside, but everything was set up for Burkhead to score in the exact same fashion.
But the flaw in this play is that Dolphins linebacker Chase Allen (#59, far right of the screen) is unblocked. He was unblocked in the first play, too, but kind of just watched the play unfold. This time, he crashes the backfield and makes the stop.
This is still a great play call and design by the Patriots, and a good play by a Dolphins defender to stop it. I wonder if Brady had let the play settle and let the Dolphins defensive back, Reshad Jones (#20), go to the outside of the formation like he did in the first play would have given Burkhead more space inside so Allen couldn’t get him from the edge.
That’s for McDaniels, Brady, and Belichick to decide.
Q2 2-1-MIA 1 (8:33) T.Brady pass short left to R.Burkhead for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
And the Patriots scored on the very next play, it didn’t really matter. The Dolphins countered the Patriots four-tight end set with the same personnel as on the previous two plays, with only one defensive back.
The Patriots flexed Hollister to the far side of the field to draw Jones away. They then flexed Gronkowski wide on the nearside, giving him a one-on-one with linebacker Lawrence Timmons, an easy win for New England. Gronk jab stepped inside and Timmons bites, giving Gronkowski the entire corner of the end zone to himself if Brady were interested.
Brady didn’t even have to look his way because he flexed Burkhead into the slot against a linebacker for another favorable match-up. Burkhead also jab stepped inside before going horizontal to the outside along the goal line. Throwing to the slot is easier than throwing a fade and this was an easy score.
Look for New England to bust out this formation more moving forward and for teams to have no ideal response to the personnel match-ups. Some teams can use three safety sets and not sacrifice too much against the run, but teams that have that type of quality depth are far and few between (the Patriots being one of them).
New England has used this formation 20 times in 2017, according to NFL stats, predominantly by the goal line or in short yardage. It should be noted that Burkhead has converted just 2 of his 8 touches into first downs or touchdowns, while Lewis is 1 for 1 and Mike Gillislee is 5 for 11. This success rate is something to monitor.
There are so many different combinations (32, to be exact) for the Patriots to run out of this formation, with players staying in or flexing out, and that doesn’t include mixing and matching the players on the field, like using Lewis or James White instead of Burkhead.
The Patriots needed an answer to their early season red zone struggles. They found one.