Threat of two tight ends catching on around NFL


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It wasn't as though the Cincinnati Bengals were lacking for receiving targets for their quarterback, Andy Dalton.

He already had A.J. Green, probably the most talented young wide receiver in the NFL, a player with the mid-air body control of a Wallenda and hands that could snatch a moth in a wind tunnel.

To complement Green and give them an option on the other side of the field, the Bengals used a third-round pick in the 2012 draft to take Mohamed Sanu, a sturdy 6-foot-3, 211-pound receiver from Rutgers who broke Larry Fitzgerald's single-season Big East Conference reception record with 115 catches in 2011.

On top of that, they had tight end Jermaine Gresham, a former No. 1 pick who had 172 catches in his first three seasons and already been selected to two Pro Bowls.

But that wasn't enough for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. As a former defensive coordinator, he saw the inherent matchup problems a team can face when trying to stop an offense that featured two pass-catching tight ends, an attack popularized by the New England Patriots several years ago.

So, with the 21st overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Bengals grabbed the best tight end in the draft in Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame, who probably was the best pure pass-catcher in the draft. At 6 feet 6, 250 pounds, Eifert is a matchup nightmare for a defense: Too athletic and fast for a linebacker, too big and strong for a safety.

"We knew he was an incredible receiver of the football and he gets here, and he's been a great blocker," Lewis said. "Having been in Pittsburgh when we drafted Mark Bruener and later in Baltimore with Todd Heap, I would say he's kind of a great combination of both of those players. He's smart, he understands football and he's been great complement to Jermaine."

Eifert is not a substitute for Gresham. He is a receiving partner who gives Dalton two receiving targets in the middle of the field, similar to what the Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But, unlike the Patriots, the Bengals have a big-play receiver on the outside in Green, creating a monumental matchup headache for any defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau included.

"The Patriots [offense] is a different thing because they're doing it without a dominant receiver," Lewis said. "They're working the football generally to the midpoints of the field. They're trying to work mismatches. When you're in nickel defense, they want to be running the football against those guys, and if you're in base defenses, they want to be throwing the football because you should be winning athletically in the matchup.

"I think that, conversely as the coordinator, that's what you're looking at. Do you have to do special things in order to get the correct matchups on these guys? And then, can they create space in the passing game with their athleticism."

Difficult task

Two tight-end formations are nothing new in the NFL. They have been around a long time, usually employed by teams that wanted to run the ball and used an extra tight end to help with blocking.

And, for almost a decade, the league has seen the advent of the flex tight end, the more athletically gifted receiver such as Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark and Vernon Davis who could line inside or outside.

But there has never been anything quite like the tandem the Patriots employed with Gronkowski and Hernandez. All they did in the 2011 season was combine for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, sparking an attempt by a number of other teams to copy their success. Even the Bengals.

"I guess everybody kind of wants to go to that Patriots system," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "When you got two tight ends/receivers and you can keep an offense in base, it's tough because it's rare that you can find a linebacker who can really check a tight end. Usually a safety got to check him."

And that's the problem the Steelers will have tonight at First Energy Stadium in Cincinnati: Trying to divide their defensive attention among Green, Gresham and Eifert -- a trio that combined for 19 catches in Week 1 -- and avoiding the mismatches those players can create.

"It definitely adds to the difficulty when you have guys you can go to inside along with A.J.," safety Ryan Clark said.

"They have that flexibility like the Peyton Manning-Colts offense with Dallas Clark," safety Troy Polamalu said. "Depending what package you have out there, you can attack it by running versus the nickel defense or passing versus the base defense."

The right combination

The Steelers have used two, and sometimes three, tight ends as a regular part of their offense for a while, at least since Bruce Arians became the coordinator. But, unlike most teams that employ two tight ends as a large part of their offense, only one of their tight ends was a pass-catcher -- Heath Miller.

As soon as Arians went to the Indianapolis Colts after being let go by the Steelers, the first thing he did to rebuild his offense around No. 1 pick Andrew Luck was convince coach Chuck Pagano to draft two tight ends -- Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen -- with their next two picks.

The St. Louis Rams drafted wide receivers in the first two rounds this year -- Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey, both from West Virginia -- but not before they signed free-agent Jared Cook, a fast and athletic tight end, to pair with Lance Kendricks.

Cook had 131 catches and eight touchdowns in four years with the Tennessee Titans and averaged 13.1 yards per catch. Kendricks had 70 catches and four touchdowns in his two seasons with the Rams.

The Houston Texans have Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, but they went to the playoffs for the first time in 2011 using three pass-catching tight ends, Owen Daniels, Joel Dreesen and James Casey. The trio combined for 100 catches and 10 touchdowns, with Daniels leading the way with 54 catches.

The Washington Redskins had a similar situation several years ago with Fred Davis and Chris Cooley at tight end, constantly putting them in motion on audibles in an attempt to create mismatches. Davis was a red-zone threat because of his size and athleticism and Cooley was a versatile threat who could line at tight end, wingback or fullback.

LeBeau, who has spent 55 years as a player and coach in the NFL, said teams have been using two tight ends in formation since the 1970s. But, back then, most of the time they were used as blockers. Now, he concedes, it's different.

"Most people that put two tight ends out there have confidence they can run pass routes," LeBeau said.

In 2012, five of the first six tight ends drafted went to AFC teams, perhaps trying to copy what the Patriots were doing with Gronkowski and Hernandez.

Why?

Well, perhaps because nine of the 14 teams that use the 3-4 defense are in the AFC. That is especially true in the AFC North Division, where all three of the Bengals' division opponents play a 3-4 front now that the Cleveland Browns have converted under new coordinator Ray Horton.

Placing a tight end on each side of the offensive line causes a defense to wonder which side is the strong side. Plus, the extra tight end could slow down some of the league's top pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers, such as LaMarr Woodley and, maybe now, rookie Jarvis Jones, who will make his first start tonight.

"I feel like in this division, versus these 3-4 outside linebackers we've got to block, a part of that is we have to have a tight end that can do that and we're always looking for that here," Lewis said. "I think, just like Heath Miller there, we have that guy now in Jermaine and a young guy in Eifert, who I think, some day, will be able to do that as well."

There is less of guessing game with a 4-3 defense because they typically place their best pass-rusher on the right side. If the left tackle can handle the pass-rusher, there is a better chance of the tight end slipping into routes.

"It can stress a defense and it's a big part of where offenses are going," said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, who noticed the trend of more two tight-end sets when he was Seattle's defensive coordinator. "It just felt like last year it was a lead personnel grouping for teams when we were doing our game-planning, because you can have a spread look and still have a two-back look."

The Steelers will get a heavy dose of that against the Bengals.

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published September 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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