Yesterday was the start of mini-camp for quite a few NFL teams, which means the offseason rumor mill will start to pick up. One interesting tidbit that surfaced from the first day of Detroit Lions mini-camp was a unique personnel grouping being used on the offensive side.
Detroit decided to focus on situational plays during OTA’s, and that bled into the first day of mini-camp when they had 77 full participants at practice. The majority of yesterday’s work came on third-down offense and defense, when the offense came out predominantly in 13 personnel (1 running back, 3 tight ends). Yes, it’s 2019 and the Lions were repping offensive sets with three tight ends.
According to Erik Schlitt of The Lions Wire, both starting wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. were limited participants in practice. This meant that they weren’t repping during team and 7-on-7 periods, just individual drills. The Lions wide receiver corps mostly consisted of veteran free-agent pickup Danny Amendola, rookie draft pick Travis Fulgham and young but unproven Andy Jones and Chris Lacy. So was the Lions usage of three tight ends just by necessity, or could it be a trend moving forward? That answer is difficult to gauge so early in the process, but there is actually some precedent for extra tight end usage in both head coach Matt Patricia and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s past.
Patricia has always been a defensive coach, but saw the effects of being multiple with tight ends during his time in New England. For years, the Patriots tormented defenses with their versatile Swiss army knife tight ends, being able to switch from power running sets to spread formations without a change in personnel. That effect keeps defenses in less than advantageous personnel, something offenses love to exploit.
Darrell Bevell is no stranger to getting usage out of extra tight ends, having successfully done so during his time as the offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. In 2015, Jimmy Graham’s first season in Seattle, the Seahawks had multiple tight ends in their starting line up four times. Their three tight ends, Graham, Luke Wilson and Cooper Helfet, logged 74, 26 and 22 passing targets respectively, and that was despite all three missing time at some point during the season.
Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones missing practice may have pushed the Lions coaches to playing with extra tight ends on the first day of mini-camp, but it’s possible that they’re experimenting with that personnel because of the advantages that can come from this particular unit.
Detroit signed Jesse James away from the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason after he produced 112 receptions over the past 3 seasons. Also in free agency, the Lions signed uber-athletic Logan Thomas away from the Buffalo Bills. Continuing to add to the position in the NFL Draft, Detroit drafted T.J. Hockenson with the 8th overall pick, then selected Isaac Nauta out of Georgia in the 7th round. Needless to say, the position was a priority for Detroit this offseason.
The main advantage of playing with extra tight ends in the modern game is the ability to be multiple in play-calling against specific defensive personnel. This only works if the tight ends are well-rounded, with the ability to be effective in both the pass and run game.
The general idea is this: enter the game with 12, 13 personnel or even 22 personnel for a particular play. If the defense counters with the modern “base” personnel that includes 5 defensive backs, then they’ll be relying on those defensive backs to fit and fill against the run. Therefore, defenses are likely to counter with an extra linebacker or two in order to be more stout against the run. However, this may leave the defense vulnerable against passing looks. If those tight ends are capable pass catchers, there is likely to be one too many matchups that the offense can exploit. On top of that, defensive players are intuitively more likely to bite on play-action looks when heavier sets are inserted into the game.
Here’s the shining example of this idea being used in a game. On the only touchdown drive of the entire Super Bowl, New England came out in 21 personnel (consisting of James Develin, Sony Michel, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan), the Rams countered with their 3-4 look.
On the first play of the drive, New England ran a play-action pass. Rams safety John Johnson flied upfield against the play-fake, leaving an outside linebacker in 1-on-1 coverage with Rob Gronkowski. Advantage: Gronk.
After a substitution that brought Rex Burkhead and Dwayne Allen on the field, New England would stay in that 22 personnel grouping for the next three plays as New England played up-tempo. On all three plays, Develin and Burkhead were aligned along the boundary, being covered by the Rams cornerbacks. On the first two plays, a linebacker ended up covering Julian Edelman. The Rams finally adjusted, but that now meant that a linebacker was covering Rob Gronkowski.
The result was the defining moment from the Super Bowl, a Brady to Gronk catch and throw inside the 5 yard line that set up the eventual game-winning touchdown.
When specifically looking at Lions rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson, he was seemingly built in a lab to perform in this situation. Hockenson is a devastating blocker, capable of finishing smaller defenders and constantly moving defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage. While not the smooth athlete or receiver of college teammate Noah Fant, Hockenson is no slouch in the passing game either. He’s got excellent body control and plus athleticism that makes him a mismatch for most linebackers. If the Lions plan on utilizing multiple tight ends and pace in their offense, Hockenson will be at the forefront of their game-plan because of how multiple he already is.
This type of strategy is more of a “change-up,” as it’s unlikely that any team would utilize this personnel grouping as the crux of an offensive system. However, as New England proved, it can be used for full offensive drives in the most tense of moments. Detroit dedicating a strong portion of their first real “practice” to this grouping suggests that they’ll look to utilize this strategy to exploit natural advantages this season.