Once upon a time (during the 2010 NFL Draft), New England Patriots Bill Belichick and his staff decided they needed not one athletic tight end, but a pair. Enter Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Enter Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The pair hit peak efficiency in their second year, as they combined for 274 targets, 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. The two were thereafter often hurt, and by 2013 Hernandez was under investigation for murder (for which he would ultimately be found guilty).
Since then, the tight end position has been a one-man show for the Patriots, with Gronkowski leading the charge and an ever-changing group of individuals backing him up. When you have a likely future Hall of Famer like Gronkowski, things could be worse, but the Patriots have never found a way to produce that two-tight end set which did so much in 2011.
That is until Martellus Bennett arrived.
Bennett has bounced around to four teams after arriving in Dallas in 2008. He never shined with the Cowboys (behind Jason Witten), never got much of a chance with the New York Giants, and did well with the Chicago Bears until he got hurt and they wanted to cut their budget.
He’s a perfect fit for the Patriots, though, a motivated, athletic tight end who compliments Gronkowski .
The Patriots have always made do with Gronkowski and one decent receiver. Recently, that’s been Julian Edelman, and he’s done really well for New England but he lacks the size of Bennett.
Last week, we saw the dynamic options which have two large, athletic tight ends brings to the Patriots with Gronkowski getting the yards (109 on five catches), and Bennett finding the end zone (3 touchdowns on six catches in addition to 67 yards).
This week, the Bengals can shift to try and prevent Bennett from getting into the red zone or try and cut down the yards Gronkowski gets but will be hard pressed to do both unless they shift a corner or a safety almost permanently into coverage. No linebacker can hang with Gronkowski or Bennett and certainly spending two in coverage to cover both tight ends leaves the pass rush light.
And if the Bengals choose to blanket both tight ends in coverage, they are allowing Edelman or another receiver to get single coverage, which quarterback Tom Brady will take advantage of.
The Patriots aren’t unstoppable, of course—the rest of the NFL shouldn’t just fold up their tents and head home. Pressuring Brady and forcing the Patriots to keep one tight end in to block or add in a fullback to help out will limit the time the tight ends can be on the field together.
Normally, the Bengals are solid against tight ends, but if you can run out two of them and both are good players, you’re more likely to find success against them. Most teams only have one (if any—some teams like the New York Jets barely have one) move tight end, while the Patriots have a pair.
That clearly changes the equation when it comes to defending the position, and will be a greater than usual challenge for the Bengals.
Finally, the Patriots have the two-tight end set they aimed for back in 2010 and it’s a doozy.