One of the main reasons I love the Super Bowl, and obviously the NFL in general, is the complexity of the game. It's an elaborate, nuanced and ever-changing chess match that pits the biggest, strongest, and fastest athletes against each other in a battle of wills, wits and physics as each side is tasked with the understated goal of putting the football into one player's hands and getting it to the other end of the field and over the goal line. A game based around that simple concept has evolved into a $9 billion-per-year industry, elaborately choreographed by some of the brightest minds in the country.
It's a game of strategy, adaptation and innovation. The two teams playing in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, are known for playing a smashmouth, "old-school" style of football. In reality, both teams are actually on the cutting edge of the game's newest trends. Both teams have very interesting aspects to their schemes, and it's been a fun week of research for me.
The Niners are pioneers of the Pistol formation and read-option offense and feature a "revolutionary," multiple and complex rush offense that has only recently been augmented with a powerful downfield thrower in Colin Kaepernick.
On the other side, the Ravens sport a similar identity of "punch you in the mouth" football when it comes to their run game. Baltimore has also revived the old Don "Air" Coryell offensive style of vertical passing -- "versions of which the 1990s Cowboys and '99 Rams both rode to Super Bowl wins," as Chris Brown pointed out this week. I could write a whole article on the Air Coryell offense (which would be fun to research, actually), but for the purpose of this piece, I wanted to focus on one of the innovations to come out of that brilliant and exciting scheme: the idea of the tight end as a dynamic pass catcher.
Coryell, the legendary coach of the Chargers from 1978-1986, turned to future Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow to develop this idea, and Winslow was the first in what's become a growing group of insanely athletic and versatile players at that position. As Al Saunders recollects in Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell's book, The Games That Changed the Game:
"You have to understand how tight ends were being used in the early 1980s. Their primary function was as a blocker, then to move out to the back side as part of the route and run a drag route. Or they'd run hooks inside, or get open in the flat. That was it. They were all big guys, 'tackles' who could catch the football. Plus, outside linebackers could still grab a guy and smack him around trying to defend the run."
It pained offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs to see Winslow's talent being held back by the traditional limits of the position. "When we lined him up at the standard tight end spot and he went to release, he got pounded by the outside linebacker in a 4-3 or the inside linebacker in a 3-4," he recalled. "He had a tough time getting off clean, and we felt we had to do something. So Ernie, Don, our O-line coach, Jim Hanifan, and I said to ourselves, 'Maybe the thing to do is take him off that line of scrimmage and start moving him all over the place.'"
Most teams these days do feature a Y-tight end in their offense and that player will be asked to pass-block, run block and run routes. The best of the best can do it all, in the Kellen Winslow mold -- "a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body" as Al Saunders put it -- guys like Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates come to mind (I happen to think that Zach Miller is super underrated too, but I'm probably biased as a Seahawks' fan). But most other Y-tight ends give up something in their explosive vertical route-running, catching, or ability to separate and aren't as dynamic as required, so teams can't ask them to be regular receivers on the outside too much.
While most teams have one or two guys who can line up in-line and pass-block, run-block, and catch short-to-intermediate passes, i.e. move the chains, not all teams heavily feature (or feature at all, I guess) a "U" or "move" tight end. This is another breed of athlete, less relied upon to pass- and run-block, though they should be at least close to competent in this, but more used as a movable chess piece around the formation to create mismatches in the passing game and confuse defenses. The most famous prototypes for that class of player are Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley, and, for a while, Kellen Winslow Jr. was that type of player as well.
The Seahawks brought in the younger Winslow briefly -- the son of the hall of famer that started it all -- this past offseason with the thought in mind that he could be that movable joker, in theory. Seahawks offensive line and assistant head coach Tom Cable explained then why he was looking forward to the Seahawks' ability to use Kellen Winslow in conjunction with Zach Miller, similar to how New England has famously used Hernandez and Gronk.
"I think you have to make a decision as a defense now - do you want to play these guys in base defense? If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends. If you're going to go the other way, say, we're going to put nickel in the game, then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it. For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up. If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more, if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more.
"Anytime on offense you can kind of dictate a little bit, then you're ahead of the defense. When your'e the punching bag, and you're taking shots from the defense, you're really behind it."
"In terms of the "U" tight end, [Winslow] is certainly going to have some responsibility to block, but I think on a list of the top important things for him, on a list of five - fifth. He's going to be moving around, blocking on the move, but he's probably going to be more thought of as a playmaker/receiver type."
I have to think this is a similar mindset to the offense that Baltimore runs, and they have a couple of very good tight ends in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Pitta is one key cog in the Ravens' success and probably an underrated member of this U-tight end top tier, and quietly caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven TDs this season, with the seven touchdowns tying him for sixth in the NFL at the position.
The Ravens could look to him (and Dickson, who caught 21 passes in 11 games this year after catching 54 passes in 2011) for explosive plays when teams geared up to stop Ray Rice and the Baltimore run game, and they used Pitta all over the formation and even out on the wing.
Let's take a look at a few examples of creative usage of the tight end position, from the Ravens' big win over the Patriots:
2-7-BLT 22 (1:40 1st Quarter) (No Huddle) J.Flacco pass incomplete short right to E. Dickson.
Now -- it's process over results in the first quarter. The Ravens started slow at Foxboro/Gillette, and the following two plays are a small illustration as to why -- it always comes down to execution.
Baltimore comes out with "12" personnel, two tight ends, one running back, and two receivers -- Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are aligned to the formation left, with Anquan Boldin slot right and flanked by Torrey Smith. The Patriots respond to this personnel grouping in their base defense, and immediately show signs of confusion. Below, you can see CB Alfonzo Dennard running from the left side of the defense, where he was matched up with Boldin in the slot, to the right side for use against what New England perceives to be a run coming, based on the alignments of the tight ends.
Now -- why do these two-tight end sets give defenses fits? I can't think of anyone better to quote for this than Greg Cosell, who, for me, is unsurpassed in his ability to simplify some of these intricacies of the game in layman's terms.
How do you respond, personnel wise, when the Saints have Jimmy Graham split outside the numbers as a wide receiver?' He asks. "Do you feel good with a linebacker, outside his in-the-box comfort zone, playing Graham? When the Patriots align with one back, two wide receivers and Gronkowski and Hernandez, how do you match up? Do you treat Gronkowski and Hernandez as tight ends and stay with your base defense? That means a linebacker must play one of them.
Are you comfortable with that? Do you play nickel as your base? How about when the Packers align with three wide receivers and Finley? Do you go with a linebacker or a safety on Finley? Do you treat him as a fourth wide receiver and play with six defensive backs?
Matching up to wide receivers is much more comfortable schematically. Defensive coaches have been doing that for years. Now they have a new set of challenges: tight ends and backs who can stress the defense both to the outside and vertically.
These are the personnel decisions that keep coordinators up at night and call for them to substitute intelligently throughout the game, in response to opposing teams' personnel groupings, depending on down and distance. In this case, the Patriots stay in base, but it almost comes back to bite them.
The ball is snapped and Joe Flacco executes a very effective play-fake. If you look at the defenders on screen below, to a man, they're all moving right with the flow of the Ravens' offensive line. This is called "run action" -- an important distinction from "play action," in which the QB will fake the handoff but the offensive line will pass block. With run action, the offensive line actually goes into "run blocking" mode, and the defense, in keying the OL, sees "run" and this helps sell the play that much more.
The only Baltimore players moving to the right for the offense are TEs Pitta and Dickson -- Pitta behind the LOS and Dickson in front of it, both on shallow drags on a "levels" route combination.
The backside defensive end over-pursues (circled feet as he's running with the flow of the play, allowing Flacco to easily escape him), which is always nice on naked bootlegs.
Joe Flacco has two viable options and chooses the one further down the field, Ed Dickson, now being trailed poorly by LB Dont'a Hightower (LB on a TE?). Below:
3-7-BLT 22 (1:35 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) J. Flacco pass incomplete deep right to D. Pitta.
I like this play design a lot because Pitta's route is designed to look like a little leak-out underneath check-down route, but then he will turn on the jets and head downfield (a wheel route).
Below, you can see the setup -- note Pitta in the backfield next to Flacco -- typical H-back movement, putting Pitta in different spots to confuse and deceive the defense.
The ball is snapped and initially it looks like man-coverage underneath with a single-high safety deep. The Patriots blitz with five.
New England safety Steve Gregory, circled in blue below, breaks hard on Pitta's route, thinking Pitta is a short option to the outside. Hoping to foil a first-down check down, he egregiously over-pursues.
Pitta just runs right past him.
Flacco throws it up to a wide-open Pitta but it's slightly overthrown -- Pitta had a chance but came up short.
Again, the designs for the previous two plays are drawn up perfectly and illustrate how tight ends can be creatively used; the execution just comes up short. Why am I showing you these plays? I don't know. Because I guess sometimes things all go right until the ball hits the player in the hands, and you can still come up with nothing.
Now... fast forward a bit. Third quarter, with the Ravens still trailing 13-7 and struggling to get any rhythm in their offense. Flacco begins to lean on the movable chess piece in Dennis Pitta, and together they exploit the matchups they're presented with by going to the no-huddle. This makes it difficult for New England to substitute.
2-10-BLT 28 (9:51 3rd Q) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J. Flacco pass short middle to D. Pitta to 50 for 22 yards (D.McCourty).
On 2nd and 10, Pitta lines up formation left in a two-point stance. The Ravens are in 11 personnel with three wide receivers -- two right and one to the left. The Patriots bring pressure in the form of No. 28 Steve Gregory -- creeping in just inside the numbers on the offense's left. Ray Rice picks up the blitz and Flacco calmly hits Pitta over the middle, who has easily beaten Brandon Spikes with a quick stutter-step move.
Here's how quickly it plays out. Pitta's athleticism at 6'4, 245 pounds is impressive.
The Ravens keep marching...
1-10-NE 10 (6:54 3rd Q) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J. Flacco pass short middle to D. Pitta to NE 5 for 5 yards (J.Mayo).
Similar play but to the other side of the field, and this time Pitta is in a three-point stance in-line.
Ball is snapped, and again, Pitta just beats Spikes one-on-one. Pitta also shows the ability to almost block Spikes out as if he were playing basketball -- a very important attribute for the position when it comes to short throws over the middle and jump balls in the end zone.
Flacco hits Pitta over the middle and then Pitta gets laid out by Jerod Mayo.
Holds on to the ball though.
Walk it off.
2-5-NE 5 (6:14) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J. Flacco pass short right to D. Pitta for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Very next play and, again, out of the no-huddle, Pitta's versatility is on display. The Ravens spread things out with Ray Rice motioning out to the far left wing. Torrey Smith has a tight split in the slot left, as does Pitta to the right. He's flanked by Boldin and Tandon Doss.
The Ravens' play call features a bunch of shallow drag/out routes and a go-route on the outside. Pitta is the primary.
The smooth yet sudden cut at the goal line, combined with the subtle but effective hand-fighting to get open, and Pitta makes it look easy.
With the Ravens spread out, S Steve Gregory again gets the matchup with Pitta, but at 5'11, 200 pounds, gives up 5 inches and almost 50 pounds. Pitta isn't slow, either.
Touchdown. Lead. The Ravens wouldn't look back.
On to the Super Bowl.
Though I'd say New England's strength on defense is in that linebackers corps with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and a talented rookie in Dont'a Hightower, the Niners' defense is significantly stouter in the secondary, and you can't find a better duo of inside linebackers than Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. My guess is that for at least a good portion of the time, those two will be tasked with man-to-man coverage on Pitta and/or Dickson, which is going to be a fun matchup to watch. The vertical deep passing element of the Ravens' offense gets a lot of attention, but the underneath stuff and seam routes to Pitta/Dickson are a big part of making things go.
The Falcons had some success last week against the Niners in the passing game as San Fran played things conservatively against Atlanta's potent trio of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, so I am looking forward to seeing how Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta measure up. Bowman and Willis are very strong in coverage but Baltimore's deep vertical passing game, combined with its usage of the tight end position, makes for a challenge on several levels. Throw Ray Rice into the equation and it's easy to see how this team made it to the Super Bowl.