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'Triple' teams: Saints, Patriots have third big threat to scramble defenses

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Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez create plenty of matchup problems. (US Presswire)  
Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez create plenty of matchup problems. (US Presswire)  

We often hear that the NFL has become a game of matchups. And offensively, that means creating matchup difficulties for the defense.

And if your favorite offense doesn't present three matchup problems for the defense in the passing game, effectiveness will suffer.

Teams with one or two "matchup" players can be contained, keeping scoring down. When an offense adds that third threat, defenses must roll coverage to an elite wide receiver, have a linebacker carry the tight end to the safety and bracket a running back with two underneath players. It's just not doable because it requires six defenders players to handle three offensive players. That leaves only five defenders for the other eight offensive players.

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What does that mean? This: One defensive coordinator said, "The reason a player like Danny Woodhead up in New England can be so effective is because you have to do so much to handle [Wes] Welker, [Rob] Gronkowski and [Aaron] Hernandez. To make matters worse they just put Brandon Lloyd in the mix."

The Patriots are a prime example but aren't the only team confounding defenses with a three-headed monster.

The top four scoring teams in the NFL -- the Packers, Saints, Patriots and Lions -- have three "matchup" players. Common to all four: a tight end that is a major part of the problem for the defense.

This offseason a number of teams are working hard to find that third "matchup" player, making it close to impossible to handle all the weapons.

The 49ers and Cowboys already have the tight end and are closing in on the other components. The Niners hope wideout Randy Moss has something left. The Cowboys needs a running back (DeMarco Murray finished last season on IR because of a broken ankle) to be healthy and continued progress from receiver Dez Bryant.

Bryant was second only to Gronkowski in third-down touchdown passes last year with five, and averaged 15 yards a catch on the money down.

The Falcons' big three -- Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez -- led all three-headed monsters in third-down receptions with 73.

There's more than combination to making a triple threat.

The Falcons and Packers do it with two wide receivers and a tight end. The Patriots do it with two tight ends and a wide receiver. New Orleans, Houston, and Detroit (if Jahvid Best returns to form) utilize the wide receiver, tight end, running back model.

The ideal situation is the Saints' package. A wide receiver that requires rolled coverage along with a tight end who no linebacker and very few safeties can cover and running back who empties out of the backfield and performs like a wide receiver. The same combination also can present a solid run threat, too. The Saints provide the blueprint for an ideal three-headed monster.

New Orleans led the league in third down conversions with a whopping 56.7 percent conversion rate. The closest team to them was San Diego at 48.8 percent, but the Chargers lost Vincent Jackson and Mike Tolbert who accounted for 114 receptions last year (35 on third down).

The Saints' trio of tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver and running back Darren Sproles was nearly impossible to cover in any situation. All three also finished in the top 12 among third-down receivers and in total targets (Jimmy Graham No. 3, Sproles No. 7, Colston No. 12).

Their 265 combined receptions were second to the Patriots' 291 for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez. Hernandez actually took some snaps at running back to stress the defense. While Hernandez in the backfield was effective he was no Darren Sproles.

The top 10 triple threats heading into 2012:
1. Saints:
Graham, Colston, Sproles
2. Patriots: Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez
3. Packers: Nelson, Jennings, Finley
4. Falcons: White, Gonzalez, Jones
5. Lions: Johnson, Pettigrew, Best
6. Texans: Johnson, Daniels, Foster
7. Ravens: Rice, Boldin, Smith
8. Cowboys: Witten, Bryant, Murray
9. Steelers: Wallace, Brown, Miller
10. Panthers: Smith, Olsen, Tolbert

Honorable mention: Eagles: Jackson, Maclin, McCoy
49ers: Davis, Moss, Crabtree
Chiefs: Bowe, Moeaki, Charles


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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