NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Rob Gronkowski is making up for lost time.
After missing the first six weeks of the 2013 season, the New England Patriots two-time All-Pro has returned as if he never left. Since his reintegration on Oct. 20, the 6’6”, 265-pound tight end has reeled in 37 passes for 560 yards in four touchdowns. Over his last four games, however, Gronkowski has tallied 27 receptions for 419 yards and four touchdowns.
The influence of New England’s 2010 second-round pick has been unmistakable. His presence has deepened the passing attack. His presence has drawn defenders. His presence has created mismatches. And while all opponent game plans account for No. 87, that itself is a double-edged sword.
Under an open roof at Reliant Stadium against the Houston Texans in Week 13, that schematic dilemma was on display.
When the Houston defense intended on jamming, doubling- or even triple-covering the Arizona product, other targets found windows – including Patriots halfback Shane Vereen.
Yet when the Houston defense intended on evenly distributing coverage across the field, Gronkowski found his windows.
And on two particular plays, his own downfield ability exemplified just why Houston vied to contain him. On two particular plays, 73 yards and six points were the byproduct.
First Quarter, 3rd-and-8: 23-Yard Short Dig-and-Up Route
Trailing by 10 points with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Patriots were piecing together some semblance of momentum. A 41-yard kick return by rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce had placed New England in good field position. And after five snaps, the offense had the ball spotted down at Houston’s 23.
Nevertheless, a 3rd-and-8 would mark the six snap of the drive.
New England sought more than a field goal.
The offense broke huddle in “11” personnel. From there, Vereen motioned from the “Z” position to Gronkowski’s right pocket. Concurrently, Brady stood in shotgun to assess Boyce’s impending fly route at the “X”, Danny Amendola’s pivot route at the slot, Julian Edelman’s skinny post at the left seam, and Vereen’s safety-valve route at the flat.
And within shouting distance of reserve right tackle Will Svitek, Gronkowski stood in the seam. He was plotting a multilayered pattern: a short dig-and-up.
If Edelman could attract Houston’s safety trio of D.J. Swearinger, Shiloh Keo and Eddie Pleasant to the right half, then Gronkowski would have an off-man matchup with ex-Patriots linebacker Jeff Tarpinian.
As Brady harnessed the snap from center Ryan Wendell, that design came to fruition. Boyce, Amendola, Edelman and Vereen were all defended in off-man coverage.
Keo and Pleasant dropped back and braced for potential vertical threats. Yet with Gronkowski stepping parallel then diagonal across the hashes, the Houston’s shell expected an underneath route away from their assignments.
Their expectations left Tarpinian in a duel with Gronkowski. He jammed the big target at the inward cut of the route.
Brady, who had ideal protection deterring Houston’s four-man rush, was afforded time and space to diagnose the secondary.
As the wideouts dispersed, Gronkowski’s vicinity expanded. He surpassed the left hashes and made his way towards the numbers. At that moment, he looked back at Brady.
His subtlety led Tarpinian to believe a pass was arriving. In reaction, the former Iowa Hawkeye extended his right arm to shield Gronkowski’s catch radius, which left him leaning and unbalanced for his opponent’s next move.
What once appeared to be a route destined for the sideline became a route destined for the end zone.
Gronkowski converted the dig to a go by planting his right foot and propelling down the field. Tarpinian’s close shadow was suddenly a more cushioned one.
Brady fired a leading pass into the territory of New England’s fourth-year pro.
Brady’s throw was a grass-grazer. It was placed where only Gronkowski could make a play on it. But in order to do so, he would have to stunt his route and lower his center of gravity.
Gronkowski did. He rotated his palms while angling his left foot back towards the ball.
Stopping, dropping and rolling, Gronkowski held onto the ball and barreled across the plane for a touchdown before Tarpinian closed in.
Gronkowski showcased four moves post-snap. And he showcased body control post-throw. The culmination of those efforts trimmed New England’s 10-point deficit to three.
Third Quarter, 2nd-and-11: 50-Yard Streak Route
With the gap back to 10 in a 17-7 game, New England inherited possession to start the second half. And after a first-down acquisition and a one-yard loss, the offense hovered at 36-yard line for a 2nd-and-11 opportunity.
The Patriots offensive grouping employed “12.” Tailback Brandon Bolden loomed deep behind Brady, and reserve tight end Matthew Mulligan hunched off-line at the “F” spot next to Gronkowski.
For head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the course of action in this alignment would be one of tandems.
Amendola was prepared to shuffle behind Edelman and run a stutter-go pattern, all while his fellow teammate ran a five-yard out. If cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson abandoned their respective off- and pressing-zone techniques through the switch, a meshing point would be exposed for only Keo to contest from single-high.
On the other side of the line, Gronkowski was prepared to run a streak out of his three-point stance, and Mulligan was prepared to run a wheel route out of his. If right defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker neglected to jam, both members of the wing would get free releases. And if Swearinger and inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton were to stretch thin, one tight end would roam free.
As Brady took the snap, he turned to Bolden for a play-action fake. The running back then departed the backfield without the ball, piercing through the A-gap of New England’s offensive line as a route-runner.
Meanwhile, the wideouts over right began their routes versus three levels of Texans defensive backs. Neither was separating from the differing coverages, though they were luring safety help.
That yielded a two-on-two battle out left between Sharpton and Gronkowski, and Swearinger and Mulligan.
The two-tight end set surpassed the line of scrimmage without any disheveling from Watt and Reed. Due to this, they were allowed space and time to accelerate.
Brady identified the lapse in the defense, also acknowledging that Swearinger had assumed Mulligan’s wheel and that Sharpton had assumed Gronkowski’s streak.
The left side of the field was split.
Brady threw the pass overhead. Gronkowski gazed back to inhale it with his arms elevated.
Neither Sharpton nor Swearinger were in proximity to defend the incoming ball.
Gronkowski clasped the ball with both hands and continued to acquire yards well beyond the Houston 40. As Keo zeroed in from center field and Sharpton traced closer, he bent his run outside the numbers.
Gronkowski reared his right elbow back to fend off Sharpton and transitioned the ball to his left hand. He pursued the sideline to evade Keo’s undercut.
The two Texans caught up and ripped Gronkowski’s torso, but their attempts were only successful in slowing him down.
Gronkowski went on for another 11 yards before Sharpton could hug him out of bounds at the Houston 11.
The defensive discrepancy escalated into a 50-yard catch and run. Two plays later, New England found pay dirt.
The margin edged back to three, 17-14.
By the time New England surged back to defeat Houston, 34-31, Gronkowski had snared six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown.
He served as a decoy. He served as a mismatch. He was in the mind of Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as well as the Houston defense for the duration of the Dec. 1 tilt.
But ultimately, it takes more than alignments and assignments to restrain the size, speed, skill and physicality of a tight end like Rob Gronkowski.