Breaking Down Why the Two-Tight End Offense Is the Best in the NFL

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates his touchdown with Aaron Hernandez in the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The most dominant offense in the NFL isn't the spread, the read-option or the pistol. The best offense in today's NFL is the two-tight end attack.

It's fast becoming a major part of every pro playbook. The set has revitalized the tight end position and made it as important as wide receiver or running back.

The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have made the dual tight end look their de facto offense of choice. Each has been used to dominate their respective conferences in recent seasons.

Just what makes the two-tight end set so appealing in the modern offense? The first reason is how it can defeat the modern defense of choice.

The two-tight end set is a 3-4 beater. A great example comes from Week 2 of the 2012 season, with the Philadelphia Eagles taking on the Baltimore Ravens.

The Eagles line up with both tight ends, Brent Celek and Clay Harbor, on the same side of the formation.

The Eagles will use both tight ends to nullify the pass rush on that side of the Ravens' 3-4 front. They'll also free Celek behind the linebacker level of the defense.

Celek runs his in-breaking route over the middle. He first bumps the outside linebacker and draws him away from his pass rush. Harbor blocks down on the wide rushing defensive end.

With Celek now behind the underneath coverage, the Eagles use their wide receivers to split Baltimore's deep coverage. The wideouts are aligned together on the opposite side but run diverging routes at the snap.

The inside receiver runs a crossing pattern towards the middle. This draws the uncovered cornerback on the opposite side away from Celek.

Meanwhile the outside receiver runs a vertical pattern. His route draws three defenders, including both safeties.

With all of that coverage taken deep and occupied, Celek is wide left wide open over the middle. He would complete the play for a 23-yard gain.

His initial route has taken one outside linebacker away from the pass rush. Despite a blitz from one of the inside linebackers, the Eagles have enough blockers because Harbor stays in to help.

The Eagles' two-tight end look has successfully split the 3-4 defense in two and created a big gain. With more teams using the 3-4 to confuse quarterbacks, the two-tight end offense is a great equalizer.

As well as the two-tight end set counters the 3-4, it's also an excellent answer to the blitz. The Patriots showed one way the look defeats pressure during their Week 14 rout of the Houston Texans.

In this play, the Patriots move their two tight ends off the line. They split Aaron Hernandez out as a wide receiver, while Michael Hoomanawanui lines up in the slot on the same side.

The Texans are in their base, 1-gap 3-4 look and are preparing a blitz. The Patriots are anticipating pressure and are targeting inside linebacker Bradie James (53) in the slot.

Once the Texans bring their blitz, Hoomanawanui runs a vertical route straight past James. The linebacker is easily outmatched in one-on-one coverage.

James would give away a critical penalty that kept alive a scoring drive. Most tight ends will defeat a linebacker in single coverage and that's the main problem defenses have.

They are challenged to cover tight ends running increasingly expansive patterns, from more daring alignments. Linebackers aren't fast enough to cover them and defensive backs aren't big enough.

If they don't release into pass routes, tight ends stay in to block and reduce the threat of a blitz. That's one of the main problems presented by the two-tight end offense.

It asks the defense the question, exactly what are those tight ends going to do once the ball is snapped?

Here's another look at the Patriots in action, this time in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. It shows the problems defenses have identifying the positioning and intentions of two tight ends.

This time the Patriots have lined up Hernandez in the backfield, as a H-back on one side. On the other side, Rob Gronkowski is aligned in the slot.

The Titans have shifted over one of their linebackers towards Hernandez. By placing one tight end in the backfield, the Patriots have successfully forced the Titans to shift to the strength of the formation.

The Patriots then bring Gronkowski across in motion, to the same side as Hernandez. That splits the linebacker out even further into a pass mode.

It also occupies the safety on that side. He now has to account for three receivers on his side, the two tight ends and the wideout.

The Patriots now have the Titans in a serious bind. Their two-tight end look is presenting an obvious run strength on one side.

However, in the event of a pass on that side, the Titans know at least one of the Patriots' tight ends will be covered by a linebacker. That's an obvious mismatch.

In reality the Patriots have used the positioning and movement of their tight ends to force a shift from the Titans. Their real intention is to free Gronkowski on an underneath route going the other way.

With a fake handoff and Hernandez staying in to block, the Titans guess run and flow towards the ball. Meanwhile Gronkowski releases free behind the linebackers for an easy 28-yard gain.

This is a classic example of how the two-tight end set can be used to manipulate the look and strength of a defense. Hernandez was merely the decoy on this play and it is common for one tight end to act as the foil for the other.

Using this deception to spread a defense and split its coverage, is something more and more two-tight end offenses are doing. An play from the 49ers' titanic struggle with the Patriots in Week 15, provides a great example.

The 49ers used their two tight ends to create a four-wide receiver, spread look. They aligned Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis in each slot.

Davis is the danger man and the 49ers want the Patriots to shift their coverage towards him. They are challenging New England's 2-man scheme.

The Niners know the Patriots will use man coverage underneath and hope both deep safeties will go towards Davis. That's exactly what happens as Davis runs a vertical route straight up the seam.

The 49ers know they have man coverage on the other side. Walker and flanker Randy Moss are also running vertical routes. Now the deep safety on that side is out of position to cover those verticals.

The threat posed by the 49ers' use of the two-tight end set helps them beat three defenders with two receivers. The result was a 24-yard touchdown pass to Moss.

This is just one more way the two-tight end offense outfoxes a defense and adds greater dimensions to the passing game.

Proponents of the two-tight end attack are moving their tight ends all over the formation. They are creating individual mismatches and splitting coverage schemes in two.

More teams around the NFL are taking notice of how dangerous the multiple tight end set can be. The NFL draft saw several teams use high picks on tight ends, despite already being stocked at the position.

The most notable example came in the first round. The Cincinnati Bengals used the 21st overall pick to add Tyler Eifert to the dynamic talents of Jermaine Gresham.

That's a combination that should worry AFC North defenses. It already has BenJarvus Green-Ellis making Gronkowski-Hernandez comparisons.

However, the Bengals weren't the only ones loading up at tight end. The Kansas City Chiefs selected Travis Kelce in the third round, despite Tony Moeaki being on the roster.

The Chiefs also signed Anthony Fasano in free agency. They now have the potential to run a plethora of plays from a two-tight end look.

New head coach Andy Reid is one of the best two-tight end play-callers in the league. He now has the weapons to match his ideas.

The Washington Redskins raised a few eyebrows when they selected Jordan Reed in the third round. Yet the wide receiver in a tight end's body will be a great pick, alongside Fred Davis and Logan Paulsen.

The 49ers lost Delanie Walker in free agency, but have no plans to abandon the two-tight end attack. They proved that by moving up in the second round to select Vance McDonald.

The two-tight end offense is gaining in popularity and for good reason. It has expanded the ways offenses can dictate defensive alignments, coverages and pressures.

Al screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, ESPN, NBC Sports and NFL.com GamePass