Every few years a no-name player emerges from the bottom of the depth chart to become a Super Bowl hero and household name. David Tyree is a perfect example. Bucs safety Dexter Jackson—two interceptions versus the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII—is another. Before him, there was Cowboys corner Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX against Pittsburgh. Most recently, the sudden Super Bowl hero would have been Seahawks wideout Chris Matthews (109 yards receiving), had his team gained one more yard against New England in Super Bowl XLIX.
This year, the most likely player to become an unlikely hero is Trey Burton. He’s Philadelphia’s No. 3 tight end, behind Zach Ertz and blocking ace Brent Celek, though there are times when Burton is one of the three most athletic weapons on the field. Ertz gives the Eagles a second pass-catching chess piece who can line up anywhere. The three-tight end package is “really important just because we have playmakers there,” says Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. “That's one thing that Doug [Pederson] had in Kansas City, they did quite a bit of [three-tight end stuff]. It’s just finding ways to mix that up and use their big bodies and the matchups that you get from that.”
Remember, with most teams, three-tight end packages are employed only in run situations. And with Philadelphia having football’s most schematically diverse rushing attack, the Patriots must think first about the run. This is especially true given all the ways Philly’s tight ends are employed as blockers. (Like the Patriots, “wham” is a staple run for the Eagles, where a tight end motions back across the formation to crack-block an unsuspecting defensive lineman.)
But with Burton and Ertz capable of serving as a second wide receiver, the Eagles can call most of their usual pass plays out of three-tight end. As tight ends, “selfishly, we would love to run that package every single play,” says Burton. “We’ll install a play out of three-wide receiver personnel and know we will run it out of three-tight ends. With our skill sets, the playbook opens up.”
That’s significant because against three tight ends defenses are often predictable, and their gameplans are built on opponents’ tendencies. Say an offense operates in trips formations 40% of the time. For most defenses, that means roughly 40% of the defensive play sheet will involve plans for stopping trips. Along those lines, few offenses operate in three tight end, and even fewer of them throw with that personnel grouping. So typically, a defense will have only one or two coverages planned there, and those coverage are likely to be ones they’ve (a) shown before, and (b) practiced sparingly. It’s a perfect chance for the offense to take a shot downfield.
The Falcons figured this out last season and killed teams with several deep passes out of three tight ends. And that Atlanta offense didn’t have a single tight end with Ertz’s or Burton’s athleticism. Notably, the Falcons did not burn the Patriots in Super Bowl XLI here, and you can be sure that Bill Belichick, as always, will have his men prepared for everything.
“With our three-tight end personnel package, some teams might play nickel defense, you even get a rare snap of dime,” says Reich. “When our tight ends are matched up, if it's nickel defense, you maybe run the ball a little bit more than you normally would.”
The Patriots, with Devin McCourty’s versatility and Patrick Chung’s run-stopping prowess, are one of those teams who can play can play nickel here (technically, a “big nickel,” with three safeties instead of three corners). Still, Philly’s passing game in three-tight end will be crucial. Reich and Pederson, who are fast becoming one of the game’s best offensive scheming tandems, understand that their Eagles must manufacture big plays through design if they’re to beat Tom Brady with Nick Foles. Knowing that Belichick will be keen on containing Philly’s diverse ground game, it would be no surprise if the Eagles run the ball out of three-tight end a few times in the first half and then take a play-action deep shot from it in the second. The Patriots might have the safeties to handle Burton and Ertz in man-to-man, but Reich and Pederson will find out whether those safeties can do so out of zone coverage when they’re thinking run first.
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