Three TE Offense – the Future in Green Bay and the NFL

By Rick

Note: some of this article is modified from one posted at MileHighReport

Many of you may know I am a draftnik and major football junkie. I study way too many college players and how they might fit into the pro game. I also love to see what works and does not work scheme and mismatch wise in the pro game. I watch the Coach 22 footage instead of regular TV when I can and I love to speak with recent coordinators/Head Coaches such as Mike Nolan and Josh McDaniels.

Many fans have commented on how the Packers get a lead and then “sit” on the ball in the third quarter and never seem to put the other team away. Lately it has been because of a very basic I formation tight run package that pretty much eats clock but almost never gets the first down. The exception was a play action pass to Nelson from a run formation late in the Panthers game an. As the weakside WR he slipped a tackle and took one to the house and secured the victory with the additional score. We also did show a little glimmer of hope by actually converting runs against the Vikings late in that game as well.

So how does a team like the Packers do better? What new revolution in play calling might help Green Bay repeat as Super Bowl Champions? What do the Belichick’s of the world see as the next great thing?

That next revolution in football may be the use of three tight end formations. Tight ends have recently become a centerpiece to many offenses with the like of Gates, Finley, Gonzalez, Crumpler, Scheffler, Witten, and others. What if a team had three such tight ends and began using them instead of wide receivers? Can you imagine defensive backs that weigh 190 pounds up against taller, 260 pound pass catching tight ends?

There have been three major milestones in the evolution of football

1. The forward pass (a play innovation)
2. Allowing OL to extend their hands and arms (a rule change)
3. The West Coast Offense and the Cover-2 counters (systems)

Step number four in the march of football ideas may very well be a change in positions. Just as the flankers and wings of yesteryear vanished, and the original fullback became the quarterback, the change in the future will be dramatic. The fullback will vanish, wide receivers will be halved in numbers, and tight ends will become the centerpiece of the game.

Consider this:

1. Football evolution is such that tight ends are becoming more prominent. The last great offensive system craze was the “west coast offense”. It was countered by teams running versions of the “cover two”. The answer to the cover two isn’t so much a scheme, but a position. Tight ends are designed to operate in the seam, which is the weak area of the cover two systems.

2. Most tight ends either block well or catch well, but all have to do both to some extent. Can’t block?  You’d better be a darn good catcher or you can’t be a receiver. Can’t catch? You’d better be a darn good blocker or you won’t get on a team as an offensive lineman. The few tight ends who do both exceedingly well are a danger to any team. Few things scare a defensive coach more than having to guess if the tight end is blocking or going out for a pass. It can’t be schemed for, because you can only guess. The guessing becomes a nightmare when two or three solid tight ends are on a team.

Mark my words: the tight end is the wave of the future in the NFL. It started a couple of years ago, and is gaining in momentum.

Currently many coaches view tight ends the way most people viewed safeties before the dawn of guys like Atwater, Dennis Smith, Dawkins, and Reed. Now safeties are exceedingly important. There have always been a few rare, exceptional tight ends (Shannon Sharpe anyone?), but with the approaches to football in defensive scheming the last few years, the tight end figures to be a new powerful weapon.

Many NFL teams have recently been stockpiling great tight ends; Green Bay, New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and a few others. We have only seen three tight ends on the field a few times in the NFL, but imagine the possibilities. The future for tight ends looks even brighter as a perfect combination of circumstances has come together in a perfect storm.

First of all, the “cover two” system on defense gains in popularity each year. It is one of the very few systems that is designed to counter the popular “west coast offense”. But the tight end position, because of alignment next to the tackle, as well as the physical build of a tight end, ends up in the dangerous “seam”, where the cover-two is weakest. By the time an opposing defender gets to the tight end he has already taken a couple of steps, and is a physical mismatch for the likely swift safeties trying to bring him down.

Secondly, teams have discovered the many “smoke and mirrors” that can be accomplished with a tight end. Historically, if you line the tight end up next to the right tackle, defenses don’t know if he is going to block or catch. But now, when a defensive coordinator sees the offense bring in two wide receivers and one tight end he is likely to send in a 4-3 defense. Maybe he should have brought in a third cornerback because teams might line up the tight end in the slot. If the poor coordinator calls a nickle defense for the next formation (3 cornerbacks), the quarterback will audible to a run, and the tight end lines up next to (or motions) to the right tackle. In other words, an elite tight end ensures a mismatch until a defensive theorist develops a new formation or a new linebacker archetype to guard these tight ends. You notice this mismatch most in Week 9 San Diego vs Packers. Gates caused serious mismatches against both slower LBs not able to sustain and cover and smaller CBs that could not stop him. Even veteran Charles Woodson could not handle the physical play of Gates.

Third, the recent move by many teams to return to the old 3-4 creates a special opportunity for tight ends. The danger with the 3-4 is picking up the blitz. With a two tight end set, the blockers are already up to the line and facing each outside linebacker. Threat neutralized. But with two tight end sets we quadruple the number of disguised packages the team has available on offense. Add in motions, and we create a playbook for tight ends that’s fatter than the playbooks of all of the other positions combined.

Fourth, teams have discovered that in two tight end sets they can compound-multiply the formations and abilities of an offense with alignments never before seen. The tight end revolution has reached this fourth point in the last couple of years, but it still hasn’t completely caught on and been fleshed out. No one would have ever lined up or motioned a tight end from the line back to a running back position. But it’s starting to happen. Denver started the craze of motioning a tight end to a fullback position on plays a few years ago.

The tight end can now run block, or fake a screen set up while the quarterback boots to the opposite side. More and more, the two tight end sets (or even “twins” with both overloading one side) compound confusion by motioning one tight end (the max allowed by the rules) to a slot, near the quarterback, or to the other side of the line. Is this a heavy run play with three blockers, or a massive pass attack with 5 total eligible and capable receivers? Does the defensive coordinator send in a 4-3, or a dime (or even a quarter)?  No matter what he does, the offense can audible. The offense will always be right! Scary. But that isn’t the doomsday scenario.

Fifth, the 3 tight end theory.

Because competition for tight ends isn’t harsh right now, and because only a few teams are taking part in the revolution, and because the advanced tight end theories haven’t trickled down to colleges and even high schools (who have yet to go out of their way to recruit and scheme for the new tight end type), it is possible for a very few teams to get the “magic three”. Most teams still see the tight end as nothing more than a safety valve, and look at wide receivers as the primary pass catchers.

Five offensive linemen, a quarterback, one running back, one wide receiver on the weak side, and three tight ends to the strong side. Something you may have seen in certain goal line plays for the Packers. For years this formation has been discussed over drinks by coaches as the “dream” or “magic” second coming of classical football. The day when football comes full circle and returns to the 1930s and 1940s. The day when an offense is run the way it was always meant to run, but with the modern twist of the forward pass and advanced theories learned for the last century. Many coaches believe this formation will be the future of football, and revolutionize the way the game is played. Defensive coordinators consider it a nightmare. It will throw most defensive theory out of the window until a counter can be developed.

Why is the formation considered by football theorists to be magic?

The formation looks like a goal line formation. The only way to stop the run is to, likewise, set up a goal line defense. But what happens when those three tight ends, all a half step back from the line of scrimmage, are eligible to catch the ball? The subtle tricks are just as dangerous. Let’s say an opposing team lines up at least one cornerback to cover one of the tight ends. In a run play, that cornerback probably gets knocked on his butt.

Not impressed yet? Further, in the formation there is still room for motion. There is also room for one or more of the tight ends to line up wide. How about one wide, one slot, one back with the RB, then a motion brings the wide in against the line?  All of a sudden a pass defense with multiple defensive backs faces a “jumbo” run play. A team like Green Bay with a variety of TE/Hybrid backs that played in this mobile motion in college already has an advantage in size and some experience in this concept.

The new formations and the new approach would revolutionize many aspects of football. For example, most teams might have one very good cornerback in a formation (to go against the wide receiver), but place more emphasis on a cornerback/linebacker hybrid player to match with tight ends on the line. The safety position would likewise probably drop to only one on the field. The fullback would vanish all together. Tight ends that further specialize might become “wings” instead of “tight ends”. The tight ends and running back become the emphasis in the offense, not the quarterback or wide receiver. “Wings” would not only catch and block like modern tight ends, but run and block, further leading to confusion.

Another drastic change would be a shift from the “run vs. pass” paradigm to a paradigm of “power vs. finesse”. The new system could be run as a powerful smash mouth tool, or it could rely on deception and timing.

Would it take over the NFL and displace other systems?

No, it would not. Even the great “west coast system” is only run by a third of modern NFL teams. As defensive masterminds dig up their century old playbooks to find clues as to how to stop the “magic 3”, other teams will force defensive coaches not to over compensate. If a defense is built to counter the “magic 3”, it won’t be as effective against the other offensive systems. But for us Packer fans you can already see we have the personnel to use this formation and use it well.

Currently, several teams have a good tight end for the future. If you go back to Denver’s first game of 2008, for the first few plays, Mike Shanahan flirted with the three tight end sets. He then switched to conventional ball. It’s on his mind and he is an offensive mastermind. Shanahan is a lot of fun though. He’s also played around with the old “option” plays seen in college too. My guess is that Shanahan’s current 2011 Redskins with Grossman/Beck at the helm would run a finesse version of the magic three system, while a team like Pittsburgh might run the smash mouth version. Currently the 2011 Redskins 2 TE attack has been amazing. Both TEs have almost 10 yrds per catch and are just destroying 3-4 and nickel defenses.

Notably, the Patriots used the three tight end set for a series in the last regular season game in 2007 against the New York Giants. The offensive coordinator for New England at that time, Josh McDaniels, now OC for the Rams, has brought in many athletic young tight ends to tinker with. I think more importantly is Belichick and Brady making use of two TEs and seem to move the ball at will.

Are we getting close to the 3 TEs yet? Who is trying it?

Pittsburgh seems to be trying to move to the magic three, as is the Patriots. Other teams approach it and flirt with it, but no one seems to be trying it as much as New England and Pittsburgh. I can only hope that MM will consider it.

Is it done on purpose, or do teams realize they have the personnel?

Both. Most teams don’t want an extra “safety valve” when they can get something better. But when a team realizes they have a dangerous duo they seem to want to scheme them into the offense. On the other hand, New England, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay seem to have been loading up on tight ends, even though they haven’t gone all out with the magic three. However, all three teams have run a few three tight ends in games, perhaps experimenting for the future.

There are more potential formation combinations that proceed from motions in a three tight end formation than any other formation in football. Because of the dual role of the tight end position, the formations become more difficult to adjust to. Here’s a simple example.

Picture a 1 WR, 1 RB, 3TE (Finley is 1TE/ Quarless is 2TE/ Taylor is 3 TE) set with the WR set out left, the RB is at his regular spot behind the QB, and 2 TE on the end of the Line like usual with the other TE behind the Guard and Tackle.



CB         LB    CB

LB    LB

X    X     X    X

WR                    OT OG C OG OT 2TE 3TE




Looking at the above diagram, picture the first tight end – 1TE(Finley) motioning to the right sideline before the play. Question: Does the defense

A) Take the cornerback on the third tight end out to cover the first tight end, while switching the middle linebacker to one of the remaining tight ends (leaving the strong side linebacker to figure out his coverage), or
B) Have the middle linebacker follow his man all the way to the edge of the field, leaving the middle of the formation exposed to a run?

Again, like with all other plays, the quarterback simply audibles based on what the defense does. In the first case the audible is for a deep pass to the third tight end, now uncovered by the cornerback. In the second case, the offense rushes the center, the defense now missing the middle linebacker. Can you say Wow?
Another possibility is to line up the third tight end as wide out or in the slot. The defense prepares for a pass, but the third tight end motions up against the second tight end (next to the right tackle). Uh oh, jumbo run formation and the defense have a major issue figuring out who to cover.

Also consider that the third tight end can also run out to the flats overloading the corner back on the right side. Then a pitch to the running back or even a swing pass to the running back would be even more effective. The possibilities are endless and in the case of Green Bay having excellent TE depth means that the personnel can not tip the play to the defense.

I’ve only touched on very basic and extreme examples. In the hands of a coach actually drawing up plays the mismatches can be further exploited, the formations expanded upon, and the obligatory motions improved upon. The bottom line is that whatever the defense shows, the audible takes the play in the completely opposite direction. The offense is always right! Amazed yet?
As stated earlier, coaches from offices to pubs to seminars have used the Magic 3 as a puzzle for defensive coaches to ponder. The day that a team has the depth at tight end and the courage to move beyond the current experiments we see occasionally, that will be the day that defensive coordinators fear most. I just hope the powers to be at 1265 Lombardi are listening and reading.

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  • Evolution. TEs have been molded into WRs keeping the prototype TE body. Whats the difference? They’re just bigger WRs now just like the 250 lineman is now 305.
    I still like Woody’s philosophy “When you pass only three things can happen, and two of them are bad”.
    That being said, I think you’re right. Its just another change in the game.

    • Rick

      I guess the post system wonked my work. Sorry everyone about the format fluctuating and the formation diagram. Oh well. Originally it was for the bye week. Thanks to Al for posting it though.

    • Rick

      Woody is normally correct but other than Brees in 2009 or Manning in 2004 I dont remember another QB having a year like Rodgers since maybe Brett in 1996.

  • Rick

    Normally he is right. I think Brees in 09 and Manning in 04 are about the only two seasons that can touch what Rodgers is doing this year with football. But not every team has an ARod. 🙂

  • Rick

    Also consider a team like the Patriots acquiring Finley away from GB as a Free Agent and combing him with the 2 great TEs already there. With Whitehead and the Law Firm at RB and Deon Branch and Wes Welker at WR they would be the poster child of what I am taking about. It would be a match up nightmare for opposing defenses. Brady could just audible based on what mismatches he gets.

    • Yeah, no doubt about it. Thing is I’ve been a fan for so long that I don’t get excited about the names and schemes anymore because the normal life span of a super star is only about five years, then you move on to a bunch of new names and schemes. DD, Cliffy, Woody next, following Bret and on and on. Now we can dred the thought of Rodgers in about five or six years, ugh!

  • PackerPete

    The most revolutionary and successful thing Belichick EVER did was to surreptitiously film the opposition walk-throughs the night before the game and to unethically use video to steal and decipher the opposition signals.

    No respect here.

  • iccyfan

    Packer fans of our generation have witnessed the damage that two great all-around TE’s can do with Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura. I’d love to see some of your dreamin’ and schemin’ put into practice with Finley, Quarless & D.J. We’re not gonna revolutionize the Packers anytime soon with the corps of WR we have in place, but it’d be interesting to see your matchup nightmares a couple series per game – give opposing D-Coordinators something else to worry about…

    • Yeah, that would be fun to see. Hell, lets put Crabtree in there too and just lob high ones about 10 yds out and march down the field.

  • I think the Broncos could use the 3 TE’s more than any other team considering they’re not going to throw that much and mostly short passes. With that, a downfield guy like Finley who’s got great hands would be perfect. Of course, Teebow might not survive long enough to take advantage of it.

    • Rick

      True they could really use it. Gotta give Fox credit. 52 runs 8 passes and get the win over KC.

      Did you see Brady just dissect the Jets in the second half tonite ? Welker was on Revis island but the 2 TE attack and the running attack just took the Jets D back out of the game.

      • 4205

        sort of fun to watch – unless you were a Jets fan I suppose.

  • Rick

    Al Harris tore his other ACL today and is probably done as an NFL player. He gave some great times here in GB.

    • 4205

      Too bad – Al seems like a nice guy. Enjoyed following his rehab from the first one. He was a big part of getting GB back to the top.

      • Steve Cheez

        I’m with you 4205. I was always a huge Harris fan, and feel bad for him for the way it has all ended. I guess coming back from the ruptured spleen and the first ACL were about all you could expect. His OT runback against Seattle to win that playoff game is definitely in the top 10 Packer moments of my lifetime.

  • Wow, Stafford threw 63 passes in that Bear game!

    • I think the Lions lost their top two RB’s and the starter now is too small to get a lot of carries.

      • Rick

        I agree Mark. The lack of a starter calibre runner is killing the Lions and making them one dimensional.

  • Larry

    Rick the limiting factor to the big 3 theory is the inability to get 3 athletic TE’s, and the degree of separation attained early in the route. Essentially the loss of “quick twitch” players on the field. The teams you name (and others like SF, NO) have athletic TE’s..but only one. NE is of course the exception along with GB. But as in GB’s case the long gains have been achieved by WO’s (Nelson, Jennings, Jones). A 3 TE set takes at least one of those off the field and maybe two…not sure I view that as a good trade.

    Additionally, the defense I believe would react by jamming more TE’s within the 5 yard zone, attempting to disrupt the timing of the play…ever critical with about a 3.5 second ticker in every QB’s head. This combined with the slower TE will dramatically limit the big strike.

    Lastly, most people view the mismatch between CB, safety and TE as size not speed. Essentially only rare TE’s can outrun CB’s and safeties. Many teams view the taller WO’s as the preferred approach getting better speed from the 6-4 package (Fitz, V. Jackson, Moss, Dez, etc.) (Tory Gurley anyone?)

    Like the wildcat…a 3 TE system has its place (goal line offense) but I don’t see it a 20 play option. It should be noted that the team that utilizes the TE the best, NE, has Welker as the leading receiver , a WO.

    Frankly, if I’m a DB I’d cover Quarless over Jones, Driver any day of the week…I’m just saying,

    • Rick

      3TE poses a difficulty not in just in personnel but in scheme. The run ability out of a jumbo formation with CBs trying to cover is a serious mismatch advantage for the offense. The ability to run mulitple formations from one set and audible to the best call against the defense is again to the offense’s advantage.

      I guess it is a tweek I see coming since there is the chance to get three athletic dual threat TEs over trying to get what Green Bay has at WR with depth and a QB like Rodgers to throw to them. In Green Bay it would be a great grinder formation. Run and pass form the same set and Aaron gets to make the call at the line.

  • BubbaOne

    When the Packers kept 5 TE’s on the roster I posted I could see them in a big pckg of 4 TE’s. Picture 2 TE’s at the line and 2 in the inverted Wishbone formation w/ Starks or Alex Green at RB. AR could shift them into all sorts of alignments including 5 wide.

    The mismatch potential is extreme…talk about messing w/ an opposing DC’s mind.

    • Rick

      It would be one heck of an old school power run formation

  • Larry

    Other than an end around or a reverse, TE’s rarely run the ball for good reason. They tend to run too high, exposing themselves to vicious hits and the football to strips ( low man wins). In addition even Finley is a 4.57-9 runner (or very close) slower than all 3 RB’s. As blockers I doubt that any TE except perhaps Chewy would be mistaken for William Henderson or John Kuhn. How does having a bad blocking slower target make you better.

    If TE’s were such mismatches the position would have evolved much sooner. Essentially it is the WO’s that provide the opportunity for the mismatch for the TE not the other way around. The over/under or double covered WO should get as much credit for opening up the middle as the crossing TE. Hell, Welker takes 3 with him why wouldn’t a TE be open.

    Replacing a “smaller/faster” WO with a “bigger/slower” TE has a time and place…but not a staple for an offense. Lastly, some TE’s have “revolutionized” the position. Winslow1, Sharp, Gonzales, Mackey,Gates. These are the exception. Finding one of these is rare…2 is exceptional and 3 is unprecedented. Give me Jennings, Nelson, Driver/Jones with Starks fading toward the flat and I’ll show you an open Finley.

    I’d like to see Gurley (I know he’s a WO on PS) line up as a TE. I think he’s 6-4 about 230. Maybe that’s the real evolution.

    Sorry, I can’t be sold on this one…

    • Rick

      Green Bay has a luxury in an amazing QB with a solid WR corp. Not many NFL teams have that. It is tougher to find a Calvin Johnson WR that is 6-5 and 220 then an athletic TE. We see one WR like Calvin each draft but TEs that are dual threat always drop in the draft as the postion is still not deemed a “skill” postion.

      I do agree with you Larry that a 6-4 to 6-6 260 TE is not a WR. But a WR can not line up tight and pick up a Bears Blitz. A TE can. Or that TE can chip and then go into the now vacant middle of the field. If they run a cover 2 with zone gap run defense and you can run a TE down the seam. Or if in motion Finley goes outside and makes the defense have to commit to zone responsibility. Once a QB sees it audible to create the mismatch whether it is run or pass.

      When GB needs to grind the clock the basic I formation tight is just not getting it done. The Oline is a pass protect line and has limited success in creating running room when in tight. A 3 TE look helps by exploiting the personnel/scheme mismatch like GB does when running spread 4WR look.

      • BubbaOne

        Larry and Rick,
        The simple answer is the TE offers more versatility than a FB. The speed and pass catching ability of a TE is better than almost all FB’s and this more than offsets their deficiency at run blocking.

        What I’m proposing is not a staple for the offense; it’s a pckg. If the D goes big (extra LB) then Finley, Q, and DJ have a speed advantage in the pass game. If the D stays in base, then the Packers have an advantage in the run game. It’s all about mismatches. I’m not de-emphasizing the WR position, I’m saying there’s a place for the 3/4TE set in the O, the 4 minute O for instance. Earlier this year the color commentator praised MM on how he devised a scheme that isolated Crabtree on a MLB.

        Rick said “It would be one heck of an old school power run formation”

        …yes, but could be a 5 wide formation and everything in between.

        • Rick

          Great points Bubba

  • Packer’s Advocate

    I suppose Capers turns the dogs loose tonight after all that’s been written this week. Hope he’s saving some of the good stuff for later on when the games really count. 44-7, in what should be a fun night of football!!!

    • Rick

      It would be nice to see a blow out win for Green Bay.

  • Did PA really predict 44-7 at 6:56 PM? Great going PA!