Analysis Notebook: Using Hernandez

| February 2, 2012

Continuing our Super Bowl Preview Week at PFF, we’re turning our attention now away from the team perspective in order to focus more closely on an individual player from each squad.

We’ll find out the Giants player that is coming under the microscope tomorrow, but today we’re taking a look at one of the game’s true X-factor players: New England’s Aaron Hernandez.

Hernandez started off as another of the new breed of receiving tight ends (a big receiver that can’t really block), and saw much of his time split out wide or simply running routes from his tight end spot rather than contributing with any blocking. Since then, however, he has morphed into a legitimate hybrid of three positions, and in this piece we’re looking at examples of how Hernandez can hurt teams three different ways.  

 

Hernandez the WR – Week 15 @ Denver | 1stQ, 9:04 | 3rd-and-9

Outcome:

Tom Brady hits Hernandez on a crossing pattern that picks up 46 yards.

Why it worked:

Most tight ends line up in the slot or out wide at times in today’s NFL. Jermichael Finley is trying to claim he is a wide receiver because he lines up as a wide out or in the slot around the same amount of time as he does in a traditional three point stance. Aaron Hernandez lines up as a traditional in-line tight end just 29% of the time. The majority of his snaps occur split out as a wide receiver or in the slot. It has taken teams a while to figure it out, but they now treat him as a wide receiver for the purposes of matching up defensive personnel packages.

This snap shows the damage Hernandez can do as a wide receiver, and not the way most receiving tight ends do their damage, by out-muscling smaller defensive backs for the football. Hernandez has moves and run-after-the-catch skills.

Lining up in the slot to the left side of the formation, Hernandez draws man coverage from safety Quinton Carter. That’s an immediate mismatch and it’s the only place Brady is ever going with the football. Hernandez runs a square-in route and gains good separation from Carter on his break. He makes an impressive hands catch on a ball that sailed a little on Brady before forcing a pair of missed tackles, first from Carter and then from Champ Bailey, before making nearly 30 additional yards down the sideline.

Hernandez shows several traits of a bona fide top wide receiver on this play. First he shows legitimate hands to bring in an errant pass, then some quick cuts to force missed tackles, and tops it with an impressive burst to gain more yards down the sideline, running away from defensive backs.

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Hernandez the TE – Week 17 vs. Buffalo | 2ndQ, 5:49 | 1st-and-10

Outcome:

Brady finds Hernandez down the right sideline for a touchdown.

Why it worked:

The Patriots can just as easily line Hernandez up alongside Rob Gronkowski in two-tight end formations like a conventional offense, and when they do, they present another set of challenges to a defense, because Gronkowski is such a weapon in the passing game as well.

On this play, the Patriots line them both up to the right of the offensive line, with Hernandez on the outside and Gronkowski inside. The Bills are in zone coverage with Aaron Williams at LCB close to the line of scrimmage, a deep safety and Bryan Scott in the nickel package playing in the box, essentially as a linebacker.

The Bills have three coverage guys in the area to deal with the two Patriot tight ends, but they don’t stay disciplined to their zones. Hernandez runs a wheel route to the outside down the right sideline and Williams does his job of getting contact at the line and then sinking into his zone, expecting safety help behind him. Williams could do a better job of dropping deeper in his zone–there is nothing to keep him shallow and it would have forced a tougher throw from Brady–but that wasn’t the only problem on the play.

George Wilson, as the deep safety to that side of the field, was forced to make a decision by the routes of Gronkowski and Hernandez getting deep on him quickly, and his attention was grabbed by Gronkowski running past Scott on his post route. Wilson bites on that threat and moves inside, away from the sideline and allows Brady to make an easy pitch to Hernandez who was now entirely uncovered running down the sideline.

Unlike any other team in the league, the Patriots can challenge teams in coverage using their two-tight end formations and put incredible stress on defensive backfields with the route combinations from them.

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Hernandez the RB – AFC Championship Game vs. Baltimore | 3rdQ, 14:08 | 1st-and-10

Outcome:

Hernandez picks up 9 yards on first down by running the ball on a toss to the left.

Why it worked:

This is the third manifestation of Aaron Hernandez in the Patriots’ offense; running back. Teams have been treating Hernandez as a wide out for a while in terms of personnel packages, sending on a defensive back to match up with him whenever he is on the field. Since they are accurate in believing that Hernandez is not a capable in-line blocker from the tight end spot, it was a sound strategy that the Patriots couldn’t counter simply by using him more as a blocking tight end in the run game.

Instead, the Patriots came up with a better way of being able to exploit the light fronts this personnel matchup created–use Hernandez as the running back. They broke this out in a big way against the Broncos, and we could easily have used his big run against them, or even one against the Bills, to show the kind of runs they are employing, but this play is a much cleaner example, even if it did only gain 9 yards.

The Patriots have three wide receivers on the field, along with Hernandez and Gronkowski. To teams treating Hernandez as a wide receiver, this is an incredibly pass-happy personnel grouping to see in the huddle and will likely be met by a very small defensive package. The Ravens, by virtue of their hybrid players in the front seven, are able to combat this with about as heavy a front as possible and still break out their nickel package.

With all the receivers in tight to the formation and Hernandez in the backfield as a tailback, the Patriots run a toss left play. Their wide receivers to the left, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman, do a good job of crack blocking into the defense–Edelman, in particular, doing well to contain Terrell Suggs for so long, while LT Matt Light pulls and leads around the edge. Hernandez, for his part, follows his blocks well, but then simply outruns the Baltimore linebackers to the hole and gains 9 yards before he can be brought down by safety Bernard Pollard coming up to make the tackle.

Hernandez has the speed and strength to hold up as a runner and the moves to force people to miss tackles when he is in space. He provides a unique challenge to a defense who can’t simply treat him as any one thing and be safe in that choice. He has the kind of versatility that forces a team to make a decision before the snap how to treat him, and no matter what they choose, the Patriots can line him up in a way that makes them wrong. Hernandez just may be the key to the New England offense on Sunday.

 

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