One of the buzz-words of the 2009 off-season was the two tight end set, or 12 personnel as the coaches call it. After a couple of games into the season, the buzz started to die down pretty fast as it became apparent that Martellus Bennett was struggling as a receiver.
The Cowboys however remained undeterred in calling the two tight end set, and used the formation as a staple in the running game, where the blocking skills of all three tight ends were put to good use. The NFL does not record any stats for tight ends outside of pass receiving, so how can we measure how successful the formation was for the Cowboys in 2009?
Well, if you can't measure it directly, you have to use an indirect method of observation, and measure the effect the formation has on other, statistically covered aspects of the game. We'll do this by looking at the Cowboys' running game, specifically the running game out of the two tight end set.
During training camp last year, Tony Romo sounded excited by the possibilities of the two tight end (2 TE) set:
Any time you can get two tight ends in the game, it’s very difficult on a defensive coordinator, personnel-wise, to decide what he’s going to play. A lot of the time when you have three receivers and a tight end, it’s more of a pass-type formation. But with two tight ends, you can run the ball every bit as well as you can with a fullback in the game sometimes, because they have to be conscious of their play-calling defensively. Offensively, you can do a lot of stuff out of it.
ESPN.com provides splits by TE formation for every running back in the league. According to those stats, both Felix Jones and Tashard Choice had a significantly higher YPA out of the 2TE set than their overall average, while Marion Barber remained basically flat.
||Marion Barber||Felix Jones||Tashard Choice|
|2 TE set
|Non 2TE set
One of the reasons Barber's numbers are lower than the others RBs is because of the types of runs he was used for: 23% of Barbers' runs came in distance-to-go situations of 1-3 yards. Choice had 19% and Jones only 10% of his runs in those situations. Additionally, in terms of direction, 58% of Barber's runs went up the middle or at either of the guards. Not much that a second TE could do to help in those situations. By contrast, only 38% of Jones' runs were run at center or guard, his outside runs are where the extra TE was a real help.
Obviously, a tight end will only be able to help in the run game if he can actually block. And boy, can the Cowboys tight ends block! According to Profootballfocus.com, Jason Witten graded out as the best tight end in the league with an absolutely dominant performance as a run blocker.
Martellus Bennet's performance was overshadowed by what many felt was a disappointing receiving performance, but what is often overlooked is his contribution as a blocker. PFF grade Marty B as the fifth best blocking TE in the league. 12th on the list, despite a low snap count, is rookie John Philips. Here's how PFF graded the Cowboys tight ends in pass blocking.
||Player||Run Block grade|
The tight end is the catalyst for most off-tackle and outside runs. On these runs the tight end will often be at the exact point where the ball is being run and his block will determine the success or failure of the play. Why is that good? Coach Wade Phillips knows why:
It’s harder (for the defense) to match up when it’s two good tight ends, and that’s what we have. We have one certainly outstanding one in Witten. Maybe the top one in the league in Witten, and Martellus shows up every day. Every day, you see him make a play.
So how do the Cowboys RBs compare with the rest of the league? There were 52 running backs in the league last year with at least 30 or more runs out of the 2 TE set. Tashard Choice and Felix Jones rank number one and two in terms of YPA among these running backs, Marion Barber ranks 24th. Here are the top 10:
|Runs out of the 2 TE set|
Ok, so Dallas has some of the best blocking TEs in the league, as well as two of the best RBs to run the 2 TE set. It shouldn't come as a big surprise then to see that the Cowboys had the best YPA out of the 2 TE set in the league last year. Below is a look at all 32 teams, and the success of their running games out of the 2 TE set (click column header to sort)
|Team||Total ATT||Total Yards||Total YPA||2 TE ATT||2 TE Yards||2 TE YPA||2TE ATT in % Total ATT||2TE Yards in % Totals Yards|
The numbers above make it clear that the 2 TE set is far from a secret in the NFL. A third of the runs in the league last year were run of of the 2 TE set. Yet some teams did very well out of this formation and others didn't.
Watch for the Cowboys to maintain a fairly high YPA out of the running game next season, thanks in part to a continued use of the 2 TE set. Also, don't be too surprised if the Cowboys end up with four TEs on their roster next season.