- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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By nature, NFL coaches are copycats. And why not? If a coach finds a strategy that works, why not copy it?
Even though this year's draft wasn't considered a very good one for tight ends, I noted that five of the first six tight ends went to AFC teams. Watching how Patriots coach Bill Belichick destroyed defenses out of two-tight end sets with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, one of the emerging trends for 2012 will be more two-tight end sets in the AFC.
The new Colts offense under QB Andrew Luck will feature tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, the next two players the Colts drafted after Luck. Minus Peyton Manning, the Colts, according to ESPN Stats & Information, ran two-tight end sets for only 242 plays last season, fourth-fewest in the league.
The Bengals drafted tight end Orson Charles in the fourth round and plan to use two tight ends a little more this year. More might be expected out of the Chargers and Titans after their selections of tight ends.
The Colts are clearly going to change.
"It is a matchup nightmare,'' Colts coach Chuck Pagano told reporters over the weekend. "Coming off of the AFC Championship Game, nobody knew better than the Ravens going into that game with the two guys [Gronkowski and Hernandez] that [the Patriots] have. It is across the league. You can see it more and more every year.
"You can choose to put a defensive back on them, and they will be undersized, they will get outmuscled and they will get 'big-boyed' for the ball. Then you can put a safety or a linebacker on them and they can't run with them. So we feel like the two guys [Allen and Fleener] that we added, and Dominique [Jones] is a physical presence, that guy is 260 pounds and moving around really well. It is a matchup nightmare for any defense."
The two-tight end trend isn't going to change the league's escalation of three- and four-receiver sets. Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and most of the top quarterbacks in the NFC will continue to work out of spread sets and no-huddle offenses because that strategy works perfectly for these quarterbacks.
The NFC is now the conference with the best quarterbacks, and it would be foolish to change what's working. Seven of the top 11 teams in the number of three-receiver plays were in the NFC. But it makes a lot of sense for more two-tight end sets in the AFC because the conference is in transition at quarterback.
Nine of the league's 14 3-4 defenses are in the AFC. Placing a tight end on each side of the offensive line leaves those defenses wondering which side is the strong side. The extra tight end could slow down some of the league's top pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers.
With the NFC having 11 4-3 defenses, the guessing game for blockers is simpler. Most 4-3 defenses place their best pass-rusher on the right side. A good left tackle can often handle him. The better the left tackle, the better the chances of the offense slipping a tight end into routes.
The Patriots aren't the only AFC team thriving in two tight-end formations. The Texans, Steelers and Ravens ranked in the top 11 for two-tight end plays. They all made the playoffs. In fact, all six AFC playoff teams ranked among the top 17 for plays with two tight ends.
"I just think you see more and more [two-tight end sets] with the fullback position kind of dying out in college football, everybody is in the spread,'' Pagano said. "They may use a tight end, but he is not in-line blocking. He is not lined up, typically, on the line, unless you come from a Stanford or a Clemson where they are in a pro-style offense. So those guys are flexed out. They are really glorified wide receivers."
The AFC is already making a defensive adjustment to counter the success of the Patriots. The Bills drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the idea of using him to slow down Gronkowski or Hernandez. Over time, AFC teams will try to get bigger and more physical at cornerback to match up better against teams with two good tight ends.
It's a trend to watch this season.