A look at New England's '12' personnel

IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys made it clear they will become a two-tight end personnel team after the draft.

Jerry Jones invoked the New England Patriots when discussing the scheme following the selection of San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar in the second round. The Cowboys also had Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert graded as a first-round pick.

With Jason Witten (who is coming off a 110-catch season), James Hanna and Escobar, the Cowboys are in position to attempt to simulate what Tom Brady does with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

We offer a Q&A with ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss for an explanation of how New England uses its “12 personnel.”

Archer: What makes the Patriots' use of the two-tight end package work so well?

Reiss: It starts with the unique talents of the tight ends themselves. Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) is obviously a very tough matchup for a linebacker or safety. He's more likely to be aligned closest to the offensive tackle, but because he runs so well, the Patriots will also split him out wide. He's equally as effective as a blocker or pass-catcher, making him a true "combination" tight end. Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245) is a nice complement to Gronkowski. He is more receiver-like and thus is split out wide more often or on the move, although he does align close to the tackle on occasion and is competitive as an in-line blocker even though it's not his forte. We've seen the Patriots run the same offense with different tight ends and it hasn't been as effective (e.g., last season's playoffs when Gronkowski was out with injury), so I think the first key is to acknowledge that it's more about the players than the scheme when it comes to the Patriots' two-tight end package and its success.

Archer: How does it differ, in your mind, from how other teams use the package?

Reiss: Probably the biggest thing is how many formations and adjustments they can run out of it, which comes back to the versatility and unique skills of the top two tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez. They could be empty in the package, with both tight ends split out wide, or more tightly compact in a traditional look with both tight ends aligned next to the tackles. Sometimes they play up-tempo with it. Other times they slow it down. So there are really so many things you can do out of the package, which again is tied to the uniqueness of Gronkowski and Hernandez. When one of those players has been injured, the package isn't as dynamic, and at times in those situations, the Patriots will use a third receiver over a second tight end.

Archer: How do most teams combat it with their defensive personnel?

Reiss: I'd say most teams combat it with a nickel package, essentially treating Hernandez as a receiver. When that happens, the Patriots have made a concerted effort to turn to the running game, feeling that a two-TE package should be able to win that matchup against a smaller defense. The results were uneven last season when it was two-TE versus nickel, in part due to some injuries on the offensive line. One of the clear-cut examples of it working to a T was last year's Sept. 30 win over the Bills, when they played a small nickel the entire game (it could have even been a dime but they listed 6-1, 220-pound safety Bryan Scott as a linebacker) and the Patriots powered through them for 247 rushing yards. Other teams have stayed in base, but it takes special personnel to do that and not get beaten by the tight ends in the passing game.

Archer: Is there ever a downside to it, like shrinking the field too much?

Reiss: If we wanted to nitpick from a Patriots perspective, we could say that relying so heavily on the two-TE package when your top receiver is more of a slot option (Wes Welker from 2007 to '12) means that your three best pass-catchers all do their best work in the middle of the field. So I guess there is a part of it where "shrinking the field" could come into play, but I don't think that's a reason not to do it. If you have two special tight ends, they can be matchup-busters and you can dictate terms based on their versatility. If the defense plays nickel against you, pound it at that team. If the defense plays base personnel, spread that defense out and let it rip.

Archer: Has the package all but eliminated the fullback in the offense?

Reiss: Yes, for the most part. The Patriots used tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in a fullback role at times last season. Other times, most often closer to the goal line, they used an offensive lineman as a fullback. But overall, when running so much of the offense with two tight ends, you're most often going to see two receivers and a running back paired with them unless it's a short-yardage situation. In terms of building the 53-man roster, one point that Bill Belichick has made is that the fullback is basically competing against a running back, tight end or linebacker for a spot, and it often can come down to special teams contributions. The Patriots didn't carry a pure fullback last season.