When the New England Patriots traded wide receiver Randy Moss in 2010, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were just getting their feet wet as rookies in the NFL. They contributed offensively, but nowhere to the level that they do today.
The focal point of the offense was Moss, who forced defensive coordinators to roll coverage in his direction because of his freakish abilities and created more space for the other weapons to work with. Now the Patriots are days away from playing in yet another Super Bowl, but there's no Moss and the young tight ends are now the focus for defenses.
How could the Patriots duo be so problematic for defenses?
The two main reasons for this is their various alignments and versatility.
Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien has done a magnificent job of moving the two tight ends all over the field through several formation packages that put the defense in conflict.
Defenses must determine based off of the personnel grouping and alignments if it is a run or pass tip-off, but what happens when tight end Aaron Hernandez is in the backfield as seen against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs?
Early in the first quarter against the Broncos, the Patriots came out in a two tight end and three wide receiver personnel package. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is an excellent blocker as well as pass catcher, aligned to the left of the formation in a three-point stance like a traditional tight end does. Meanwhile, ultimate weapon Aaron Hernandez lined up in the backfield which raised some red flags for the defense.
The Broncos defense was unsure of how to handle the alignment of Hernandez. Do they treat him as a running back or a tight end?
Ultimately, they decided on him as a tight end and the personnel package as a passing one. They would have six defenders in the box which put them at a disadvantage against the run play called. Gronkowski and the rest of the play-side blockers would seal off the Broncos defenders on the outside-zone run concept to spring Hernandez for 43 yards.
Later in the game, it was the same personnel grouping, but it was a "trips" set (three receivers to one side) to the left and Gronkowski split out to the flank on the right. Hernandez would once again be in the backfield and this time, the Broncos thought they had it figured out.
They dropped an extra defender in the box, giving them seven and outnumbering the blockers. With an extra defender in the box, it meant the cornerbacks would be left in man coverage with help from a single safety in the middle of the field.
Unfortunately for Denver, it would be a pass play that put their defenders at an immediate disadvantage. Gronkowski on a cornerback was an advantage for New England and they would make the most of it, with Tom Brady throwing a high-arcing pass for a 28-yard catch.
New England's two young tight ends are a matchup problem any way one slices it, which is something to watch for in the Super Bowl.
How will the New York Giants look to match up with the Patriots tight ends? Do they go to their "Big Nickel" package that features three safeties instead of three cornerbacks out on the field? I fully expect them to, but how will they treat Hernandez? Is he a running back or is he a tight end?