The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have a lot in common when it comes to how they are constructed. One of the areas where both teams have built similar packages on offense is the use of two tight ends at the same time.
Many teams code personnel groups numerically. For the sake of this article, "12 personnel" is when the offense has one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. A "22 personnel" group is when there are two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver. The first digit represents the number of running backs and the second number represents the number of tight ends. Because there are five eligible receivers in any personnel group, the remaining receivers equals the number of wide receivers on the field.
The Ravens tend to use 12 personnel and the 49ers like 22 personnel, especially in the playoffs.
The Ravens' tight-end tandem is Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, while the 49ers employ Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. All four can run block and have combined for 22 receptions, 377 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason, which got my attention. They also had 144 receptions, 1,786 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season. The Harbaugh brothers know how to best use two-tight-end sets.
The problems these Super Bowl teams can cause relate to the formation flexibility they have in 12 or 22 personnel. There are so many combinations of formation options with two tight ends, and so many of those sets force the opposing defense to stay in base defense to defend the run but present such threats in the passing game.
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In the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons, the 49ers came out with 22 personnel with an 'I' formation in the backfield and Walker as the right tight end with Davis as the wing next to him. It was a power-run set on the 4-yard line that kept the Falcons concerned about Frank Gore. Instead, Colin Kaepernick faked the run and bootlegged right to the two tight ends. Walker released immediately up the field and Davis blocked down like it was a run, then released to the flat -- uncovered -- for a touchdown.
That kind of play will cause big problems for the Ravens, who have to worry about the 49ers' run game.
The 49ers are creative with their 22 personnel. As an example of using motion to get matchups, they use two backs in the backfield to provide solid protection. Davis lines up as the left tight end with Walker the wing. Walker goes in motion across the formation and forces linebacker coverage on him. Davis draws double coverage on his release up the field, and wideout Michael Crabtree -- who happens to be on the side Walker is motioning to -- goes vertical, pulling the other safety and corner with him. The linebacker covering Walker needs safety help, but there is none, and it is an easy 20-yard completion.
None of the Ravens' linebackers can cover this play, so expect to see it on Sunday.
The Ravens also have great concepts in their two-tight-end package, and plan on threatening the run from 12 personnel but countering with the pass.
The Ravens also like the tight-end/wing concept. As an example in a play they used against the Broncos, Dickson is the tight end with Pitta as the wing. The Broncos have to think run with Ray Rice in the backfield, but here comes Joe Flacco with a bootleg. Pitta releases vertically and Torrey Smith clears out all the coverage. Dickson blocks down in a similar fashion to Davis' block we discussed earlier. Then Dickson releases and it is an easy 10-yard gain.
San Francisco left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has to be ready for this play when all of his keys say run.
Finally, the Ravens can get creative after the snap, just in case the 49ers think they are on to the Ravens' wing passing game in 12 personnel. The Ravens run the play-action run fake right at the TE/TE wing set, which is a heavy run read.
Pitta got all the way across the bottom of the formation and into the opposite flat. The linebackers realized it was a bootleg when they saw Pitta come across but they didn't drop as deep as they should with their eyes on No. 88. Dickson slipped in behind the linebackers but dropped an easy pass.
This play will be tough on Niners star inside linebacker Patrick Willis. First, he will see Rice coming downhill at a TE/TE wing set, which is run all the way. Then he will see Pitta underneath. Only a super-disciplined player wouldn't be tricked.
Both teams want to run and they want to convince the opposing defense they are in a run mode. The tight-end sets send that message, but the real issue could be the passing game when two tight ends are in the game.
My film study says that none of the linebackers on either team can cover these tight ends AND stop the run game. Don't be surprised to see one of the tight ends wind up in the backfield as a fullback or wider than the wide receivers, which can happen when a defense tries to play 12 personnel in nickel defense.
Take a look at the frequency these tight ends are targeted in the passing game, and you should realize the important role the 12 and 22 personnel play for the Super Bowl teams. For the Ravens, Pitta (108 targets) and Dickson (39) have been targeted 147 times, with 96 receptions and nine touchdowns. For the 49ers, Davis (72) and Walker (46) have combined for 118 targets with 70 receptions and nine touchdowns. Davis and Walker have been targeted 18 times in two postseason games. Pitta and Dickson have 14 receptions in the postseason.
Mark my words: All four tight ends will be a factor in this Super Bowl.