(Sorry for the quick dip into another team’s strategy – but found it interesting to think about Pats’ personnel in the “why”, and not just that they stick good players out there)
I found it interesting that the Patriots were pushed as a “spread” team, but for so many years now, they have taken elements of the college attack and employed them. Granted, there’s a major difference – most college teams have an evolving offense that creates a new system. What Belichick and his various coordinators have done over time, is to adapt their scheme but keep it intact. Most pro systems are considered vanilla, and homogenous – but they also fill in as all-encompassing. They’re able to do whatever you need, including spread. That’s a major departure from the team’s roots, the Parcells –rooted Erhardt Perkins scheme (think Jeff Davidson).
But here’s what makes New England’s ‘spread’ attack so unique. Their two tight ends. It creates spread out of 12 personnel, which most teams would still traditionally sub to base defense. But then when it’s time to set to the line, a TE is moving, a TE is in the slot, or a TE is split wide.
Two good TEs have always created a mismatch – a rarity to really contain a truly good TE, it’s that much tougher to do two at once in the same fashion. Too big for a safety, too fast for a LB, the saying always went; you’re unlikely to have two defenders for a TE on one side if it’s an overload, you’re unlikely to have two on the field if the two are evenly spread.
For a team that employs a fair bit of shotgun (part of what gets them called spread), their two TEs certainly still let them run, naturally. Most teams don’t put two TE out there in a spread attack, and only due to their versatility is that an option. If it were only Aaron Hernandez, this would be a situational set and not a lot more. If Rob Gronkowski was the only guy, the flexibility wouldn’t be there. With the zone blocking, a second blocker in Hernandez is more likely to get to reach a LB, and just get in his way. As well, using that personnel, with a base defense, you have the power to spread bigger defenders wide – taking them out of the run. You have the ability to force a defense to go smaller for coverage, but you’re still big.
But, naturally, the payoff is the passing game. Two TE that can spread vertically after they’ve helped pull the defense horizontally, that creates space. You’ve created a defensive situation where you can’t play much man because of matchups, and you can’t pull a safety down to stop the run because of the vertical nature of the TEs. That allows Wes Welker to continue to work underneath, where his experience and short-range skill make him dangerous. Take away the deeper threat, and you don’t have much of that.
Carolina took charge of that same ideal last year, and did use some spread ideals (you remember the draw play we saw a ton - my least favorite Chudzinski playcall, that first and ten shotgun draw with Deangelo Williams coming across formation after the snap to gain two yards off right guard, far too often). Their two tight end sets didn’t bear the fruit that New England’s did. The 2nd TE (Jeremy Shockey) is now gone, and in his place is Mike Tolbert, whose versatility has been beaten to death.
But while Carolina won’t attempt to be New England, and probably won’t use as much shotgun, the ideals are still there. Between Tolbert and starting TE Greg Olson, there will be opportunities to split, and to motion, and to manipulate the defense in numerous ways. Hopefully, they’ll use backup TE Gary Barnidge as a similar player – that ‘move’ TE that can go upfield, or split– as well. It’s a copycat league, and even innovators will borrow.