Film Room: Rob Gronkowski

Film Room: Rob Gronkowski
Film Room: Rob Gronkowski
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

Rob Gronkowski is as dominant a player as the league has seen in this era. Though oft-injured, Gronkowski transcends the typical role of a tight end. The Patriots employ Gronkowski as a primary deep threat, a red-zone go-to, a true wide receiver, and a point man in the run game. There is not a single offensive skill player more versatile and valuable than Gronkowski.

No matter the question a defense presents to the Patriots offense, Gronkowski is the answer. Be it getting the ball himself or allowing others to make plays, a majority of the Patriots success revolves around the cartoonish tight end. The same exact pass concept can be defended two different ways, produce two different results, and still be influenced primarily by Gronkowski.


In Week 6, the New York Jets tried to slow down the Patriots offense with a press Cover-1 pressure package on this play. The five defenders across the line of scrimmage are designated pass rushers, while the two defenders directly behind them are responsible for the two running backs. The cornerback to either side of the formation plays press coverage, the nickel cornerback plays as tight as he can against the Patriots' tight doubles formation, and the deep safety commands the middle of the field.

Gronkowski is the inside player to the doubles (left) side of the formation. Gronkowski makes a slight hesitation at the snap, then stems vertically. Danny Amendola, the receiver to Gronkowski's left, works to stack over Gronkowski and act as a buffer between Gronkowski and the nickel cornerback.


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The buffer is enough to set Gronkowski free over the middle. Tom Brady avoids a defender in the pocket and threads a pass to an open Gronkowski, giving Gronkowski an easy one-on-one opportunity versus the deep safety on his way to the end zone.

Later in the season, the Patriots called the same play versus the Buffalo Bills. Being a zone-oriented defense under Sean McDermott, the Bills tried to defend it with a soft Cover-2 shell. Surely an entirely different approach would yield a different result for the defense.


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This version of Cover-2 is a traditional spot drop, meaning the defenders are not matching routes, but rather finding their spots on the field and hovering near them. However, the idea of a straight drop coverage is still that the defenders should be aware of route combinations and flow toward where the ball may be. Gronkowski is normally a good bet as to where the ball will go, so the left hook defender stays near Gronkowski rather than pushing to Amendola. Likewise, the left deep safety is backpedaling over the vertical stems so as to not give Gronkowski seam access. Even the shallow cornerback is afraid to commit down the field and stray too far from Gronkowski or the running back. With every defender in the area occupied, Amendola sneaks off on his corner route for a big gain.

In addition to being the core of many of New England's passing concepts, Gronkowski is Brady's security blanket in key moments. Gronkowski can be a vortex for Brady to throw to down the seam or split out wide to win quick one-on-one scenarios. Gronkowski's dependability was necessary in New England's tight victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers toward the end of the season.

Early in the third quarter, the Patriots were digging into the Steelers' red zone, but came up 1 yard short on third down. Rather than kick the field goal to close on Pittsburgh's lead, New England went for the conversion to extend their opportunity for a touchdown. Belichick asked Gronkowski to split out left as a wide receiver and go one-on-one with a cornerback to pick up the first down.


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Gronkowski pulled through. With one powerful step, Gronkowski won the inside track and presented Brady with an easy throw for the conversion. The cornerback did not stand a chance trying to play Gronkowski tight at the snap, much less working around his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame at the catch point. The Patriots converted that fourth down before the ball was even snapped.

As New England faced a 24-19 deficit on their final drive of the game, Belichick and Brady looked almost solely to Gronkowski for the win. Brady threw to Gronkowski four consecutive times, completing the final three to put the Patriots on the 8-yard line.

Dion Lewis received a handoff on the next play, running behind a two-tight end set that included Gronkowski. Gronkowski helped clear a path for Lewis' touchdown before capping off the drive with a successful reception on New England's two-point attempt.

Furthermore, Gronkowski presents the ultimate run-pass threat. Part of a tight end's value is to be able to threaten defenses as a pass catcher and then block for the running game with the same quality. Tight ends who can do both successfully present a rare threat because the defense can not afford to be light in the box, but must have enough coverage ability on the field to deal with the tight end. Gronkowski is the most dominant, unpredictable manifestation of this value, and proved as much on back-to-back plays versus the Steelers.


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Gronkowski blocked Stephon Tuitt head-up on this run from under center. Gronkowski had to feel which way Tuitt was trying to work to and stop him from getting into the backfield. In a situation like this, the defender has the advantage. The defender has two options that the blocker can not predict, while the blocker can not see the play developing behind him. It should be relatively easy for the defender to pick his path and power through the tight end. Of course, Gronkowski is, in effect, a sixth offensive lineman anytime he is attached to the formation. Very few tight ends could have made the block versus a 300-pound defensive end.


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On the following play, Gronkowski took defensive back Sean Davis on a vertical route outside the numbers. Davis matched up to Gronkowski as well as any coach could ask, but Gronkowski nullified the young player's efforts. Without breaking stride or seemingly exerting any extra effort, Gronkowski extended his arms and hauled in a pass over his shoulders while falling toward the ground with the defender. For Gronkowski, that catch appears smooth, but there is not another tight end around the league who would make that catch as easily or as often as Gronkowski.

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Heading into Super Bowl week, it is not groundbreaking to single out Gronkowski as a likely, even probable, game changer. The Gronkowski factor is particularly interesting this time around because of the Philadelphia Eagles' specific weaknesses on defense. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz may never admit it publicly, but Gronkowski is the last player Schwartz wants to face in the most important game of his life.

The Eagles are well equipped to handle Brady in almost every way. Coming in at eighth in pressure rate at 32.5 percent (subscription required), fourth in interceptions (with 19, and seventh in pass defense DVOA at -7.3%, the Eagles' attacking defense has most of the ingredients to get a rare disaster performance out of Brady.

Oddly enough, tight ends presented an issue for the Eagles defense, as did covering the middle of the field. Per DVOA, the Eagles ranked 17th in handling opponent tight ends and 19th in covering the middle of the field. A player of Gronkowski's caliber can expose that weakness in a way that derails the game for the Eagles.

Rob Gronkowski at the core of New England's game plan does not bode well for Philadelphia. There is not anyone on Philadelphia's roster who should be trusted to match up with Gronkowski all game long. The Eagles do not have an Eric Berry, and Gronkowski is well past the Week 1, watered-down version of himself that was coming off of an offseason back surgery. It may take a miracle in order for the Eagles to shut down Gronkowski.


7 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2018, 5:02pm

#1 by billprudden // Jan 31, 2018 - 5:08pm

I have often said to myself while watching Pats games "It's a shame Sean Taylor got killed".

Points: 0

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 31, 2018 - 8:35pm

It is sort of amusing that both teams enter hoping what Kansas City did to them won't happen again.

Points: 0

#3 by PatsFan // Jan 31, 2018 - 9:10pm

Well, I hope this film room will actually be relevant to the game. Tick-tick-tick-tick as Chris Berman would say.

Points: 0

#4 by bingo762 // Feb 01, 2018 - 10:29am

The scary thing about the top play is both Gronk and Amendola were open. In the Eagles film breakdown from the Vikings game, the only person open was the person who received it(and some of that required pinpoint passing)

Points: 0

#7 by mehllageman56 // Feb 04, 2018 - 5:02pm

The top play was against the Jets. It's not like they had a great pass defense. I would also argue Gronk wasn't that open; if Jamal Adams hadn't gone for the ball when shielded by Gronk, he probably would have made the tackle keeping Gronk out of the end zone, letting the Patriots score a little later in the drive.
Comparing the Vikings secondary to the Jets secondary is just foolish. The Vikings have two all pro safeties, while the Jets had two rookies playing last year. The Jets cornerbacks were even more suspect than their safeties.

Points: 0

#5 by PatsFan // Feb 01, 2018 - 4:01pm

The Gronk has cleared the planet. The Gronk has cleared the planet.

Points: 0

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 01, 2018 - 5:27pm

Philadelphia has been weird about how they've played TEs.

The list:

Name: DYAR rank, targets-receptions-yards-TDs
Davis: #14, 1-0-0-0
Reed: #35, 8-5-36-0
Kelce: #2, 10-8-103-1
Engram: #33, 7-5-45-0
Gates: #26, 5-3-18-0
Henry: #3, 3-2-16-1
Gresham: #24, 2-2-16-0
Dickson: #11, 8-4-26-0
Davis: #14, 4-4-67-0
Reed: #35, 10-8-64-2
Kittle: #16, 4-2-22-0
Celek: #9, 2-1-24-0
Derby: #41, 3-1-11-0
Heuerman: #A7, 1-0-0-0
Witten: #20, 1-1-7-0
Sims: #38, 1-1-(-3)-0
Graham: #27, 4-3-26-1
Everett: #42, 1-1-6-0
Engram: #33, 13-8-87-0
Cook: #17, 2-1-15-0
Witten: #20, 3-2-17-0
Hooper: #13, 1-1-3-0
Rudolph: #8, 4-1-25-1

The only guy who really had a lot of success despite defensive attention is Kelce. Philadelphia bottled up the other good TEs they played. Washington had some success in game 2, using two TEs, but mostly that came from force-feeding Reed at 5 YPA.

Gronk can certainly pull a Kelce on them, but Philly could also pull a Celek/Henry/Rudolph and take away a premier TE.

Points: 0

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