The Atlanta Falcons tight ends are simply an afterthought in one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. WR Julio Jones is arguably the best receiver in the league, and no running back tandem in the entire NFL was more productive than Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
And then the Falcons tight ends themselves don’t turn heads. There’s no Rob Gronkowski or Martellus Bennett, no Travis Kelce or Greg Olsen, no Antonio Gates or Jason Witten. So you are forgiven if you overlooked Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper.
But make sure you’re watching for the tight ends on Sunday during Super Bowl LI.
“They’re good,” Patriots S Patrick Chung said about the Falcons tight ends. “They’re big, and their big and fast, they’re fast for how big they are. And they’re good in the running game, they can block. They have overall a good group of tight ends and those guys definitely are still on our radar. We’re not forgetting about them. They’re good.”
The Falcons lost TE Jacob Tamme early in the season with a shoulder injury, but it’s important to factor in his production when looking at the Atlanta tight ends. Tamme, Hooper, and Toilolo combined for 86 targets, 60 receptions (69.8%), 809 yards, and 8 touchdowns through 18 games this season.
When you consider that Patriots TE Martellus Bennett has 82 targets, 61 receptions (74.4%), 737 yards, and 7 touchdowns this year, the Falcons production doesn’t seem like much- but you’d also laugh at the team that pretended like Bennett wasn’t an offensive threat.
“This is a cool offense to play tight end in,” Falcons TE Jacob Tamme told Pats Pulpit. “The way [offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan] uses tight end is fun. We get to do a lot of different things- we get to be aggressive in the run game with our blocking, we get to do a variety of different routes, line up in a lot of positions, which a lot of teams are doing now, but the way we teach our run game and the way we get an opportunity to be involved in a lot of different parts of different concepts in the pass game is fun for me. It's been a lot of fun and all of our guys take a lot of pride in our tight end room in being versatile and being able to plug in to different spots and to help out our offense in whatever way we're asked to."
The Patriots will likely match Chung or Patriots FS Devin McCourty in coverage of the Falcons tight ends, while a player like LB Kyle Van Noy is another potential option.
“I think with them is they have all three tight ends that can go out there and play,” McCourty said. “[Falcons QB] Matt Ryan will throw to any of them. They have some good speed and size, so I think, especially once you get in the red area, tight ends in this game are always tough. They're mismatches down in the red area and different things.
“I think, along with that, they're able to run every formation with different groups. They go out there with three tight-end sets, but you'll end up in empty with one tight end out wide, one in formation and one flexed. They do a bunch of different things, and I think all three of their tight ends are kind of interchangeable, so you're not able to say, 'This guy's going to be here or he only does this.' They all three do different things at different points in the game. That creates another challenge that no one really talks about, but as a defense, you have to be ready for the three tight ends, the two tight-end sets. We've studied that, and hopefully we're on that Sunday.”
McCourty used to be correct about the Falcons usage of tight ends in the red zone; Tamme hasn’t played since week 8, yet his 11 red zone targets are just shy of Julio Jones’ 13 red zone targets. Recently, however, tight ends have fallen out of favor in the red zone, with more targets instead going to the running backs in the flat.
The Falcons tight ends won’t care who scores, so long as someone reaches the end zone.
"We get real excited when we go 13 personnel with the three tight ends, which we did a lot- we still do it quite a bit- early in the year we had an unbelievable stat going on our yards per pass or something out of that,” Tamme said. “So we all joke around and take a lot of pride when we have three tight ends on the field. So having two [tight ends] is second best, and then, you know, sometimes you just got to have one which is okay. But we got [FB Patrick] DiMarco, too, so he does a pretty good job, he gets to get in there and you can't always have all the tight ends on the field, but we have a fun room and we take a lot of pride in playing our role, whatever it is."
The Patriots already have a full plate with managing the Falcons receivers and running backs. The Falcons tight ends just add to the increasingly complicated calculus. Fortunately for New England, Chung and McCourty are on assignment and have been among the best at limiting tight end production all year. Sunday should be no different.