3-TE Offense – The Future of Football?

A couple days ago, one of my students asked me how I thought the Denver Broncos would do this coming year. I didn’t answer. One of the beautiful things about the NFL, of course, is that one never knows what will happen on the proverbial “any given Sunday,” so I’m not generally keen on such predictions. I’m even more uncertain about the fate of the orange-and-blue this year, though. The so-called off-season has been, well, a little crazy. Coach change. General Manager change. Quarterback change. Pending Wide-Receiver change. It’s enough to make the head spin!

That said, it’s also pretty exciting. Especially given the fact that the regime change is bringing in brand-new systems for both the Offense and the Defense, and that we have very little idea what those will be. Sure, the defense is liable to tend toward the 3-4 alignment, but we can’t be certain what that’ll look like in reality (my guess is they’ll use a strong “Ted” blocking linebacker system, using the run-stopping Davis to free up Williams, but we’ll see).

The thing I’m most interested to find out, though, is what our base offense will look like. My guess? Something like this:

One look at a 3-TE offense. The 2009 Broncos?

This is magic.

Perhaps this doesn’t look all that intriguing, but it really is. It’s a 3-Tight-End set, and if implemented with the right personnel it is the thing of nightmares for any defensive coordinator. Let me explain.

The key to this offense — and a large part of the reason it hasn’t been seen much in the NFL — is having the right set of personnel to implement it.  Most essentially, you need three high-quality TEs who can both run-block at the point of attack and catch balls across the middle or on out-routes.  More than that, at least one needs to have some decent speed and down-field capability.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the down-field threat Tony Scheffler and the do-it-all-duo of Daniel Graham and Richard Quinn. That last one, you may remember, is a rookie, who was rather unexpectedly drafted by the Broncos at a seemingly high price — almost as if the new regime was determined to pick up a third powerful TE.  “Who needs 3 TEs?” many people cried out.  Well, this system does, folks.

So that’s the minimum. Ideally, you also have a quick wide receiver who can beat double c0verage even out of the jam, a smart running back with soft hands and solid route-running abilities, and an intelligent, fast-acting quarterback who can read a defense and consistently hit the open man. A huge bonus to the lethality of the system is a wildcard player who can line-up effectively at TE, WR, or RB. And on top of all that you need a coach willing to make the leap to put all this into action on the field.

Here I give you Eddie Royal at WR, Knowshon Moreno at RB, Kyle Orton at QB (hopefully), Peyton Hillis at TE/WR/RB, and young, hot-shot, new-idea, offensive-minded coach Josh McDaniels.

Clearly, I think we’ve got the personnel. Goodie.  So let’s get to this scheme to which they are so superbly suited, okay? Look at the base set again:

I say again: m-a-g-i-c.

I say again: m-a-g-i-c.

Left to right, you’ve got a WR split wide, five o-linemen backed by a QB and a RB in a single-set. The goofy stuff, obviously, is on the right side (now the “strong” side): 3 TEs, each set back from the line. At its most simple, imagine that the offense calls two plays in the huddle.  One is a pass play, one a run play. The offense moves to the line in this set.

What, as a defense, do you do?  Instinct is to see this alignment, which is a “heavy” alignment, as a run play.  Indeed, one would expect the run to be strong-side: to the right, behind those 3 hulking TEs. Most NFL defenses are either 4-3 or 3-4, meaning either 4 linemen and 3 linebackers or 3 linemen and 4 linebackers.  The other defensive players are some mix of cornerbacks and safeties, who are invariably much smaller and faster than the linemen. Seeing a heavy run alignment like this, the defense will likely want to stack the line against it.  4-3 or 3-4, they’ll typically only have 7 big bodies they can throw against the line.  Alas, they’re facing 8 potential run-blockers. Advantage offense. Fair enough, you might say, the defense should swap out a safety for another big body, or at least bring their best-tackling safety to the line to match up with the smallest of the tight-ends (who will invariably outweigh him and outreach him by a fair amount). One way or another, though, your defense is ready to stop the run.

Fair enough. The quarterback audibles to the pass, and you’re statistically screwed.  There’s no way all those linemen will keep up with the three TEs if they break into patterns, not to mention that speedy WR who is likely to be in single-coverage on the outside. And even if you manage to cover all those folks (unlikely, but still…), the RB is simply going to roll out into the left flat and catch a pass, with nobody around to even think about touching him. It’s magic.

Okay, you say.  As a defense you’ll bring in a bunch of smoking-fast defensive backs to protect against the pass, ensuring that nobody is open on the pass play.

Jolly good. The quarterback audibles to the run — or more likely just runs the play, as “run strong” will probably be the default fast-snap call — and this mighty wall of 8 run-blocking madmen flattens all those little defensive backs, leaving the running-back free to scamper his way to paydirt.  Magic.

And that’s just from a simple base set. What happens if one TE — say it’s Graham, playing TE3 — motions over to the left side pre-snap? Now the defense doesn’t even know if the run option is liable to go left or right. If they decide to spread the line to cover both options, you can be sure the run will come straight up the middle for a big gain. What if instead Hillis comes in as TE3 and motions back into a two-back set with Moreno? Now, even if you know the offense will run the ball (which is doubtful), you don’t know which “back” will get it. Or what if Hillis lines up at WR but then motions up next to the left tackle? Egads! Passes or runs can be had in any direction, and the advantage will always go to the offense: they’ll simply audible to the defense’s weakness.

Game. Set. Match.

I didn’t give that curious student a prediction about the Broncos’ season, but if I knew for certain that McDaniels was planning this 3-TE magic, you can be sure my prediction would be closer to 13-3 than 3-13. It is, after all, magic.

It’s also something that we’ll see sooner rather than later.  The time has come for a seismic shift in offensive scheming, and I suspect this is it. It’s only a matter of time until someone, somewhere, will have the personnel and the personality to try it out.

I’m just hoping it’s my Broncos.


  1. Nicely done!. There have been several articles that also spoke of this on MileHighReport.com, and it’s nice to see this information getting out on other sites. Congratulations, and nice job.

  2. Thanks, Broncobear!

    MileHighReport, eh? I guess I’ll need to spend a bit of time looking at it; I’ve been sadly missing decent Bronco-centric discussion since the demise of the Rocky and the growing inmate-run-asylum feel of the Post.

  3. Just one fly in the ointment – you need 7 players on the line of scrimmage (you only have 6).

  4. Quite right, Bill. Caught by a good coach. One TE would typically be on the line. I “pulled” them all back to highlight them.

    Stupid, really. I could’ve done the same thing more effectively and appropriately by painting them orange.

    Do go check out the site mentioned above, though: they do a far better job of explaining all this!

  5. Great info! I’m a TN Vol and we have a new coach (Derek Dooley) that keeps talking about changing the game with multiple TE sets. According to practice notes, we’re talking 3 and 4 TE’s every play.

    It was hard for me to imagine until I came across your blog. Thanks for the information, sir.

  6. Glad you found it useful. Alas that I didn’t see it transpire on the field for the Broncos last season. Perhaps your Vols will finally make it reality!

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