Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 3: Miscast, Underused in Indy, Allen Set To Break Out With New England

National Football League teams using two tight end sets is as old as the game itself, but how they benefit the individual offenses is a matter of overall talent and depth - and since the start of this decade, no team has relied more on - nor gotten more out of - their tight ends than the New England Patriots.

Selected in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, respectively, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Florida's Aaron Hernandez helped the Patriots and head ball coach Bill Belichick revolutionize how offenses attack defenses - and how defenses defend against them.

So lethal was the Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing that acquiring monstrous and athletic tight ends became en vogue, as it were, for other teams to follow suit and jump on the gravy train while defensive coordinators were still trying to figure out how to stop the dual-tight end look, and acquiring the players to do it.

Ultimately, most teams had to settle for less on both sides of the ball, but even though Gronkowski has missed considerable time with injury and Hernandez ended up in the poke, Belichick never reverted back to a normal pro set, opting instead to keep signing tight ends to complement Gronkowski, as names like Kellen Winslow, Jr., Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Matthew Mulligan, Tim Wright and Scott Chandler came and went as possible complements...

...but it wasn't until last season when Belichick traded a low-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears to pick up the disgruntled yet animated Martellus Bennett that the Dark Master finally hit on a deal to bring in a true complementary weapon, though he turned out to be more of a vital cog in the championship machine when Gronkowski went down with a slipped disk at midseason than a mere complementary chess piece.

So, it's not such a huge surprise that the Patriots won Super Bowl 51 without the services of Rob Gronkowski, though it is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL to ponder, particularly given that of the previous two Super Bowls that the Patriots have participated in since Gronkowski was drafted 42nd overall back in 2010, the road traveled was bumpy and full of obstacles...

...losing in 2011 when he was injured to the point that he should have been on the IR, then in 2014 the massively talented workhorse tight end was completely healthy against the Seahawks, though it took a miracle at the end of the game for New England to pull out their fourth championship.

In Super Bowl 46 against the New York Giants, Gronkowski was hobbled with what was initially diagnosed as a high ankle sprain, but what turned out to be partially ruptured ligaments that required surgery to repair, and in Super Bowl 49 he was a difference-maker down the stretch that allowed the Patriots to take a late lead and eventually win the title.

Last February, he was on the IR after back surgery forced him to the sidelines, but this time the Patriots were able to come back and win a fifth title, scoring 31 unanswered points after spotting the Atlanta Falcons a 25 point lead.

The difference, of course, was the presence of Bennett, a depth option that the Patriots haven't had since Hernandez went rogue, as well as a full complement of various-sized and shaped weapons for quarterback Tom Brady to target - depth that Brady has never had to work with before.

In 2011, Brady had only Wes Welker, a rapidly aging Deion Branch and the now deceased Hernandez to fall back on as options to Gronkowski, as names like Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman were not yet viable targets, but were options in 2014.  Last season, Edelman teamed with Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Bennett and running back James White to earn a trophy...

...depth that has gotten even deeper this offseason with the additions of receiver Brandin Cooks and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee - and even though Martysaurus Rex (Bennett) is making cheeseheads in Wisconsin, head ball coach and chief roster builder Bill Belichick brought in tight end Dwayne Allen to level the playing field at the tight end position.

Oh yeah, Gronkowski is back, his surgically repaired back one-hundred percent and ready to dominate both the line of scrimmage and the seam.

By himself, Gronkowski is the ultimate matchup nightmare and accounts for over one-third of the Patriots' total passing yardage when he is active for gameday - but as we saw last season, that's nowhere close to a guarantee, and that's why there has been a concerted effort by Belichick to load up at other "skill" positions, including depth at tight end.

Allen is an enigma, but those types of players tend to show up on the positive side of the malady more often than not in Foxborough.

Built like a linebacker with a timed-40 that puts him in that same classification, Allen's forte is running dig routes across the face of the opposition's second level, where at 6' 3" and 255 pounds, he is an absolute load to bring down.  A different player than Gronkowski, Allen is more of a "Move" tight end, meaning that, simply, Brady can move him around in the formation to set protections and take advantage of potential mismatches.

Of course, Gronkowski is so talented that he can be used in the same manner, only with his size and speed, he is a much more dangerous target and is in a class all by himself.

Allen is also an athlete with a unique skill set, however, and should be a perfect fit in the Patriots' offense.  Flexible and explosive, Allen can pop off of the line and into the pattern without having to align in the slot, and is a polished route runner - something that Brady will enjoy about having him in the formation right off the bat...

...and also because he is a reliable safety valve over the middle who can't be intimidated by smaller coverage 'backers or strong safeties, and will drag said defenders like death chains until someone gets underfoot.

In other words, he will likely become the team's go-to chain mover, and chances are very high that he will be far more successful in coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense than he was with the Indianapolis Colts', who dealt him to New England for a fourth round draft pick, simply due to the fact that his skill set is a better fit with the players around him.

Gronkowski is going to take folks up the seam and to the sidelines on "out" and "post" routes, running back James White will own the flat on "buttonhook" and "wheel" routes, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will drive slot corners crazy with "return" and "jerk" routes and Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell will take corners on deep posts, occasionally sitting down in intermediate zones just to take advantage of zone coverages... chances are that those digs that Allen is so good at are going to be wide open, especially since he is so adept at shielding the defender from the ball with his wide body - and if they are not, then someone else is going to be open somewhere.

The formula is simple: dictate to the defense how they are going to defend, then use their alignment against them.

For example, if New England went full-spread, it would normally force the defense into a dime look (six defensive backs), but with two talented and dangerous tight ends on the field in the spread, either those extra defensive backs are safeties with enough bulk to handle tight ends, or the defense would have to scale back into a nickel and counter Allen with a like-sized athlete.

We already know how futile and dangerous that concept is when guarding Gronkowski - when Brady sees him isolated on a linebacker or in single coverage of any kind, he starts drooling and changes the play to take advantage of the mismatch - and the same should hold true for Allen, who has enough ability to destroy second-level zones on technique alone...

...and has shown the capacity to move the chains as a check down, possession-type receiver with extraordinary hands and playing speed faster than his timed-40 would suggest.

Other than Gronkowski and Allen, the depth is mostly questionable, though there is talent in the group. Belichick signed veteran Rob Housler, traded for James O'Shaughnessey and brought in undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister to compete with incumbents Michael Williams and Matt Lengel for a third tight end spot, if there is to be one.

Housler is a pass catcher only, while Williams and Lengel offer little more than massive inline blocking. O'Shaughnessey is the favorite to carve out a role with the team, given the fact that he has developed behind Travis Kelse in Kansas City and came out of Illinois State as a highly rated "move" tight end that has become a decent blocker and has enough vertical speed to challenge the seam.

The draft day deal that brought O'Shaughnessey to New England is exciting in that he was considered a second-round prospect coming out of college that fell all the way to the fifth round, presumably due to the fact that he hadn't faced any real big college challenges and his development as a complete player probably wasn't going to happen as quickly as most teams would like, given the "win now" nature of the NFL.

So Belichick did what Belichick does, let Andy Reid indoctrinate him to the pro game while he learned behind Kelse for a couple of seasons, picking him up for what amounted to peanuts against the cap and in draft capital, and now has the opportunity to field a broken-in youngster with a ton of upside - which is essentially an insurance policy in case it turns out that Allen continues underachieving as he did in Indianapolis...

...though much of that was due to the way the Colts used him - or should we say underused him - in their spread attack, then eventually replacing him with combination tight end Jack Doyle, who fit more in Chuck Pagano's offense due to his ability to work well on the move, frequently moving in motion before the snap to gain explosion coming out of his initial cut.

Allen is essentially what the Patriots need in a move tight end, and O'Shaughnessey adds a layer of depth that gives the Patriots - surprise! - the deepest corps of tight ends in the NFL.


  1. I love your writing, Michael. Where did you gain so much in-depth knowledge?

    1. I just study a lot...Thanks for your kind words!