What will the Patriots offense look like without Gronkowski?
When the news of Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending back injury came out on Friday, you could hear the collective sigh in New England.
After all, the Patriots have been here before. Gronkowski has missed, or been banged under, for multiple championship runs. And it’s fair to argue that those injuries kept the team from adding another pair of Lombardi trophies.
Gronkowski’s greatness is not just that he’s a physical freak. It’s how those skills: size, speed, and power, translate into the scheme. He is not only the best receiving tight end in the sport, he’s the best run blocking one too. That gives the Patriots innate matchup advantages, as defenses pick from a pair of bad options. Play in base and they’ll end up with a slower linebacker on Gronk, but switch to nickel (in order to cover him with a defensive back) and they risk that DB being run over on the ground.
Moreover, the McDaniels-Belichick-Brady brain trust have found unique ways to take advantage of such a flexible skill-set: utilizing him in varying alignments and using route combinations that are unique.
Replacing all of those things impossible. However, the team is better placed than ever before to recreate his impact in the aggregate. And we got our first glimpse of that on Sunday against the Rams.
You cannot overstate Gronk’s impact on the running game. Whether its personnel matchups, lightening the box through his alignment, helping with double-teams, or lining up individually and owning players at the point-of-attack, Gronkowski’s impact is as big (if not bigger) than any individual lineman.
The Patriots have shown a strong commitment to the run this season. That’s, in part, because their offensive linemen are better suited to run-block. The interior guys; Shaq Mason, David Andrews, and Joe Thuney are all better firing off the ball in attack mode rather than sitting back in pass protection. All three have had good years, but Thuney may be the Patriots’ best overall lineman already, despite being a rookie. And the two starting tackles — Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder — are also having great years (credit should go to offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia for turning this group from one of the NFL’s worst a year ago into one of the most effective). But the commitment is also due to the trip of backs — LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, and James White — that make up a versatile backfield. Blount is the thumper, White a shifty speed back, and Lewis one of the most dangerous players in space anywhere in the league.
That commitment was on full display Sunday, as the ploughed the ball down the Rams throats, finishing with 1330yards yards at an average of 4.6 yards per attempt.
With Gronkowksi gone, the need for a successful rushing attack is heightened. But the loss now allows them to dedicate more bodies to the run and to diversify things.
Now that Gronk’s off the field, the Pats personnel packages will expand. On Sunday, they showed split-back looks with White and Lewis both in the backfield, a number of tackle eligible plays, featuring Cam Fleming in the Gronkowski role (though obviously without Gronkowski’s recount threat), and an increased use of fullback James Develin.
Bringing the fullback onto the field gives the offense an extra gap in the run game. It increases the variety of plays, and running them from under center helps to disguise them.
Develin’s presence as a lead-blocker was felt throughout the Rams’ game, including a crucial seal block to spring LeGarrette Blount for a 40-yard touchdown run.
Adding Develin also allowed the offensive line to successfully hush Aaron Donald, the best interior player in football. Rather than using center-guard double-teams or collapsing the tackle inside and having Gronkowski kick out the edge defender, they used a series of tackle-guard combination blocks on Donald (taking away his lethal first step), with Develin mopping up an unblocked defender (Note: they also used creative trap and angle blocks to minimize Donald’s effectiveness).
There was also a greater reliance on wide receivers to be involved in the blocking scheme. Here, with a run play designed to the left of the formation, Brady moved Edelman out of the slot and onto the line the line of scrimmage in order to cut-block Mark Barron. Barron was unaccounted for on the right side of the line, and Edelman was able to take him immediately out of the play.
Then there’s Martellus Bennett: Gronkowski-lite. He isn’t quite the run-blocker or receiver that Gronkowski is, but he’s pretty damn good. And he’s good enough to create some personnel matchups in the run-game.
Bennett’s greater impact will come in the passing game. Gronkowski is a game-wrecker post-snap, but he’s also vital before the snap, where he helps to reveal coverages for Brady. His alignments: in-line, in the slot, as a h-back, or flexed out, force the defense to show its hand, showing Brady the coverage principle (zone or man) before the ball is snapped, and allowing him to routinely predetermine where he’s going with the ball.
Having that kind of information pre-snap is a key reason why Brady is able to get the ball out of his hand so quickly, and negate some of the concerns of his offensive line in pass protection.
Losing that wouldn’t be a disaster, Brady is one of the best players in history at being able to diagnose and process coverages, but Bennett gives him another big mismatch piece who can be moved around in similar ways to reveal coverages.
Against the Rams, Bennett was moved all over the field. And that was paired with constant shifting and motioning from Julian Edelman and running backs James White and Dion Lewis (usually moving from the backfield to splitting out as a receiver). In that role, Bennett can slot right in. He had a poor game vs. the Rams as a receiver, but he certainly helped Brady by revealing favorable matchups pre-snap.
One new wrinkle that Josh McDaniels revealed on Sunday was splitting Develin out as a receiver.
The goal, again, is to help reveal coverages. But it’s also to try and force the defense to stay in its base personnel. If they see Develin in the huddle they’ll assume he’s going to line up as a traditional fullback for a running play. By sticking him in the slot or moving him out as a receiver, Brady was able to get some of the same pre-snap looks as he did when Gronkowski and Bennett were on the field together.
Often, defenses switch to zone, which Brady eats up. And if they stay in man he’s able to go directly to a matchup he likes (usually that would be the second tight end, but now it will likely be a receiver).
Develin’s impact was felt on Chris Hogan’s 15-yard touchdown grab. The Patriots’ put him in slot. That forced the Rams to think of him as a legitimate receiver (even though he wasn’t getting the ball) and to rotate a safety down to cover him, leaving Chris Hogan 1-on-1 on the outside. Brady immediately went to Hogan, throwing a perfect back shoulder throw that couldn’t be defended by the cornerback.
Throughout the game Develin was moved from the backfield, to the slot, to lining up in a plus split (outside the numbers) creating a personnel problem for the Rams. Whether McDaniels and co. will continue to run formations that essentially puts a receiver on the field who isn’t a real receiving threat will be interesting. But it was certainly a fun wrinkle.
So, while it’s clear that offense can still create 1-on-1 matchups and reveal coverages through formations and movements, replacing Gronkowski’s production is less certain. Most likely it will come from a combination of four players: Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Dion Lewis and James White out of the backfield.
All of those guys will be responsible with winning those individual battles. Both Hogan and Mitchell have shown good chemistry with Brady at points this season. Mitchell in particular has strung together a run of really good performances. In fact, he had three plays on Sunday in which he demolished an opposing cornerback, but Brady didn’t see him or opted to go somewhere else with the ball.
Mitchell’s speed will need to become a bigger part of the offense.
Interestingly, Gronkowski was the Patriots deep threat. Whereas other teams use wide receivers to run clear-out concepts, or to create room underneath the coverage, the Patriots used their tight end. Even on seam routes, where tight ends are usually hit in the intermediate window, Gronkowski was tasked with stretching the defense as vertical as possible. Those responsibilities will now shift to Mitchell, who certainly has elite speed, but won’t draw anywhere near the attention.
Much of the system will remain unchanged. And the team will still continue to get guys open through play-design. With Brady at the helm there will be a less significant drop-off than the Patriots’ may have feared on Friday afternoon.