Belichick has long ties to tight ends. As an assistant coach with the Lions from 1976-77, Belichick coached Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders and, after the team drafted David Hill in 1976, he put both tight ends on the field at the same time. That was apparently the start of it, but others followed.
Don Coryell (Chargers) and Joe Gibbs (Redskins) used multiple tight ends during the 1980s. And disciples of both, including Chargers coach Norv Turner and Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, have been using two tight ends for years.
But nobody had found two talents like Gronkowski and Hernandez. And those types are dwindling because of the rise of the spread offense in college.
“When you have two guys that are that capable, it’s real trouble,” said defensive back Ronde Barber, who is in his 16th season with the Buccaneers. “Gronk is more traditional just because of his size.
“But they run a lot of 12 personnel [one back, two tight ends] where they have Hernandez in the game and he can either be end position as a tight end, he can line up in the backfield, or he lines up like a slot receiver. So they give you matchup problems.’’
In the NFL, it’s all about matchups. That’s the power that the multiple tight end set gives the Patriots. Tight ends are, as Falcons coach Mike Smith dubbed them, the “queens on the chessboard.”
Get the right tight ends and you can have a 60-minute advantage.
And we haven’t even touched the no-huddle offense and the personnel advantages the Patriots have since Hernandez can go into the backfield and run the outside zone plays.
The scheme is not perfect. Yet.
If the Patriots don’t run the ball enough in situations that they should, then teams with certain personnel — including multiple safeties, like the Giants had in the Super Bowl with Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle, and Deon Grant — can clog the middle of the field, where the Patriots’ personnel worked best the past two years.
The Patriots also ran into this problem in the 2010 playoff loss to the Jets, when New York loaded up on defensive backs and the Patriots refused to run against those looks.
Enter receiver Brandon Lloyd.
“The Lloyd signing was so critical,” said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell. “They needed someone who could at least get down the field. They didn’t have that guy last year.’’
The Patriots have also added two more tight ends, Daniel Fells (Y) and Visanthe Shiancoe (F).
Gronkowski takes two steps back as if to pass block. Then he tries to shove rushing Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan aside. Kerrigan senses something is up and tries to tackle him.
But it’s too late. Gronkowski is too tall, too fast, too good. A mismatch for a linebacker.
Brady lofts a touch pass, which Gronkowski catches at the 32-yard line with Kerrigan trying desperately to drag the 6-6, 265-pound behemoth down.
Gronkowski needs just two steps to shed Kerrigan and then 23 yards of torn-up turf to score a touchdown to give the Patriots a 27-20 lead.
This was how it was all supposed to happen. That was the vision.
And all because of lessons learned by Belichick and the Patriots in 2009.