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26 Jan 2015

Film Room: Rob Gronkowski

by Cian Fahey

It has been a while since the Seattle Seahawks lost a playoff game.

During the divisional round of the playoffs following the 2012 season, the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seahawks by a score of 30-28. Seattle scored all of their points in the second half after two key decisions by head coach Pete Carroll cost them points in the second quarter. While those two decisions hurt the Seahawks in the short term, they acted as the first signs for the wider NFL audience that Carroll was a different kind of head coach.

Midway through the second quarter, down 13-0, Carroll decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Falcons' 11-yard line. Michael Robinson was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on a fullback dive. The ensuing Falcons drive saw Matt Ryan connect with Roddy White for a long touchdown that made the score 20-0. Carroll's offense had time to respond. They reached the Falcons' 11-yard line once again, but this time on a third-and-goal with just 17 seconds left in the quarter.

With no timeouts left, not enough downs to spike the ball after the play, and a rookie quarterback under center, most coaches would have called a safe play in this situation. Most coaches would also have kicked a field goal on the previous drive. Most coaches aren't like Carroll.

Instead of calling a safe play that protected his quarterback and lessened the risk of a sack or turnover, Carroll spread the formation with four receivers while asking his quarterback to drop back in the pocket. Russell Wilson was expected to read the coverage without play-action or a rolling pocket. He dropped back and looked to his left before bringing his eyes back to the middle of the field, where he could throw to a post route in the end zone. Wilson was taken down as he began his throwing motion. That sack prevented the offense from running another play and kept the Seahawks scoreless at the half.

Those two decisions stand out from that game simply because they reflect the ethos and culture that Carroll has brought to Seattle. Unlike their upcoming opponents in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks boast a head coach who embraces the individuals he works with instead of looking to fit them under a disciplinary standard. Carroll has never attempted to "fix" Marshawn Lynch, he has largely encouraged Richard Sherman to be Richard Sherman and even though he had to be convinced to draft Wilson, he went on to embrace the quarterback earlier than anyone would have ever expected. On Sunday, Bill Belichick will attempt to outsmart the Seahawks by adapting his team to exploit the weaknesses that he has found in film study. The Seahawks will do that too, as evidenced by their special teams touchdown in the NFC Championship Game, but to a much lesser extent.

Instead of adapting to their opponents, the Seahawks under Carroll have followed an approach that largely focuses on themselves, an approach that shows off confidence and ambition along with a lot of bravery. This is nowhere more evident than in the team's defensive game plans, game plans that typically revolve around their Cover-3 scheme.

That Cover-3 is executed so effectively that players such as Drew Brees, Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Graham, and Peyton Manning have gone against it without forcing the Seahawks to make dramatic alterations. Now, on the biggest possible stage, the Seahawks face the biggest possible challenge to their typical approach. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski demands attention. He is a freak. Even after a variety of injuries, including an ACL tear that hampered him entering this season, Gronkowski is arguably the most impressive athlete in the NFL right now. He combines that athleticism with natural technique, impressive awareness, and a determination that makes him very difficult to beat for the football or tackle to the ground. Gronkowski is the only player in the NFL who can be both a sixth offensive lineman in the running game and a mismatch receiver against 99 percent of his opponents on a given play.

That number is at 99 percent, because the Seahawks haven't had an opportunity to cover Gronkowski since the 2012 regular season.

Gronkowski had just six receptions for 61 yards in that game. By any measure that was an underwhelming performance, but compared to the Gronkowski of today, the Gronkowski of 2012 was less-refined player with a smaller role in his offense. Similar things can be said about the Seahawks defense, many key pieces of which have developed significantly over recent seasons.

In that 2012 meeting, the Seahawks didn't change up their coverages much. Then 23, Gronkowski ran 38 routes against identifiable coverage, lining up in the slot and at either tight end spot throughout. The Seahawks did not adjust their coverages based on where he lined up, nor did they ask a specific player to cover him. For 22 of his 38 routes, the defense simply sat in Cover-3 and pattern-matched to contain each of the Patriots' receiving options. When covered by a man assignment, Gronkowski saw work against Kam Chancellor six times and K.J. Wright four times. Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner also covered him, but with less regularity. Even focusing on how Chancellor and Wright match up to Gronkowski seems unnecessary, because neither is likely to follow him around the field or cover him for the majority of snaps unnaturally.

Carroll's defense showed no interest in adapting to any specific Patriots player. They largely stuck to just a handful of coverages: Cover-3, Cover-1, and a form of Cover-2 when they rushed just three defenders by dropping a defensive tackle into coverage underneath. This year's Patriots may not have the same level of name-recognition talent that that team boasted, and given the track record of Carroll's defense, it seems that only minor adjustments will be made to cover Gronkowski this time around.

With that in mind, it's best to focus on the challenge that this Polar Bear in a Helmet creates.

Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have been paired together as the two best tight ends in the NFL for a while. Yet while Graham may be the second best tight end in the league, he is not on Gronkowski's level as a receiver. Graham has a narrow skill set that he used to dominate opponents when he was at his best. He couldn't run versatile routes or consistently adjust to passes at the catch point unless they were above his head. Gronkowski is a more fluid athlete at the catch point, with much better feet and intelligence as a route runner. This allows him to threaten the defense in many more ways. The above chart highlights this by tracking all of his regular season receptions from this past season.

Not surprisingly, Gronkowski was eased into the regular season after his ACL tear. He primarily ran short crossing routes and curl routes. His route tree expanded as the year went on, but the Patriots' passing offense as a whole focused on shorter passes so he wasn't consistently catching balls deep down the field. His three longest seam receptions came against the Miami Dolphins towards the end of the regular season.

Many teams attempt to attack the Seahawks Cover-3 defense down the seam, but it's always much easier in theory than practice.

When Gronkowski caught passes running down the seam, they largely came after play-action. This play against the New York Jets is likely the blueprint for how the Patriots will attack the Seahawks down the seam in the Super Bowl. Gronkowski is lined up tight to the right of the offensive line, with fellow tight end Tim Wright lined up on his outside shoulder. This draws a safety into the box, and the cornerback to that side of the field is focused on Wright at the snap. The Patriots also have two wide receivers split to the left, which has drawn a linebacker into the slot.

Despite coming out with a tight formation, the Patriots are able to quickly widen the secondary of the Jets because of how they release into their routes. The outside receivers to the top of the screen keep the deep safety outside the right hash mark to start the play. On the other side, the cornerback initially lined up outside of the furthest right Patriots player, Wright. However, that cornerback is moved further wide when Wright releases towards him. With the deep safety so far away and the near side cornerback focused on Wright, Gronkowski already knows that there is going to be space for him to attack down the seam.

To get the ball to Gronkowski quickly, the Patriots need to prevent the linebackers from quickly dropping into coverage. They do that by running play-action. Each of the second-level defenders who lined up in the box at the snap are drawn forward, allowing Gronkowski to release into the secondary unopposed.

Because of the impact of the play-action, the underneath coverage couldn't drop deep enough to disrupt Tom Brady's wide passing lane to Gronkowski. Because of how the formation worked with the route combinations, the three deep defensive backs couldn't close on the football before him. Most significantly, Wright's presence to prevent the outside cornerback from focusing on Gronkowski was important. While that is an effect that can be created with a wide receiver lined up outside to that side of the field, the run would be less threatening in that case, and the defense would be less likely to drop a safety so close to the line of scrimmage as they would against two tight ends.

Throwing the ball down the field isn't really what the Patriots want to do with Brady at the helm. Throughout this season, Brady has done a good job of running an offense that worked to his strength, an offense that focused on shorter passes. Gronkowski played a big role in both creating and taking advantage of these opportunities.

A position group that matches up well with Gronkowski doesn't exist. Most teams have nobody that can match up to him in one-on-one coverage in any situation. Typically, when Gronkowski gets matched up with a linebacker underneath, it is a worst-case scenario for the defense. With unnatural consistency, Gronkowski has been able to create comfortable separation against linebackers this year. On the above play, he runs an out route against DeAndre Levy of the Detroit Lions. Levy is one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL, but he can't get close to Gronkowski on a third-and-7 conversion. Gronkowski combines strength through his break with the quickness and balance to move quickly and decisively through his route. Levy was at least able to bring the tight end down after he slipped.

If Gronkowski isn't quickly brought down on these shorter routes, he has the ability to turn upfield quickly and eat up yardage for big plays. He doesn't have breakaway speed in the regular sense, but his long strides and fluid movement allow him to be effective if not all that elusive. The bigger issue with Gronkowski when he has the football is bringing him down. Often the smart thing to do is to attack his knees simply because his upper body is too strong for most defensive backs to impact.

When the Patriots look to Gronkowski on these out routes and crossing routes underneath, the Seahawks underneath defenders should be able to comfortably match his quickness. Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, and K.J. Wright are all great space players and reliable tacklers. Chancellor in particular likes to maraud around the middle of the field to punish any players willing to attack his space. If unable to rely on the combination of his speed and strength, will Gronkowski be able to win enough at the catch point to be an efficient weapon?

The Patriots ask Gronkowski to run a wide variety of curl routes. He will line up wide of the formation and take the easy yardage underneath when defensive backs back off of him. He will angle his curl routes to find soft spots in zone coverage from the same spots. He doesn't work short routes that align between the tackles; instead he typically advances further downfield into positions where he can bully linebackers and safeties. Wagner will likely be asked to prevent these routes from being completed more than anyone else. He will need to show strength at the point of contact as well as the catch point.

Gronkowski is adept at adjusting his route to find the soft spot in the zone as well as being smart to only use his elbows when pushing off against defenders.

Winning at the catch point is something that the Seahawks were able to do comfortably against Jimmy Graham when they faced him during last year's Super Bowl run. Gronkowski won't let the Seahawks dominate him like that. He shows a much greater intensity when fighting for the football and simply has more ability than the former basketball player. Just competing with Gronkowski at the catch point and preventing him from taking over consistently should be considered a victory for the defense.

Fighting Gronkowski for the football over the middle of the field is always going to be difficult because he can consistently make spectacular plays. However, the Seahawks do have an advantage that most other teams don't. When the Patriots moved Gronkowski to the outside to work against defensive backs, his physical prowess would allow him to simply dominate his defenders without exuding much effort. Moving outside against Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell won't allow Gronkowski to dominate his opponents with his size.

Sherman is 6-foot-3 and comfortably the best big cornerback in the NFL. He has the bulk to battle Gronkowski through his routes and the ball skills to find the football quickly with his long, strong arms. Maxwell is shorter than Sherman, but he still measures at 6-foot-1. The bigger concern for Maxwell is his bulk. He will concede positioning to Gronkowski more easily than Sherman will, but he can make up for it with his ball skills. Maxwell has shown an incredible ability to disrupt receivers at the catch point without being in good position because of his hand usage.

Having bigger cornerbacks with such ball skills means the Seahawks will likely prevent the Patriots from attempting goal-line fades, but they will still need to be concerned about Gronkowski's ability to run in routes from wide positions without giving up a big play through a double move. The Cover-3 approach should help them in these situations.

Presuming that both Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman can be fully effective if not fully healthy, this matchup promises to truly feature the best of the best. Gronkowski is the caliber of player who could still be discussed in 50-plus years. The Seahawks defense, on the other hand could be the next '85 Bears, the standard bearer against which all forthcoming defenses will be held.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 26 Jan 2015

15 comments, Last at 28 Jan 2015, 6:55pm by EricL


by RickD :: Mon, 01/26/2015 - 11:32pm

A healthy Gronk for a Super Bowl run.

We've been waiting a long time for this game.

by PaddyPat :: Mon, 01/26/2015 - 11:45pm

Shhh don't jinx it. The game hasn't started yet!

by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 12:45am

Patriots fans in the 21st century have an understanding of "a long time" that, if evident when describing other features of observable reality, may prompt a prescription for anti-psychotic medication.

by RoninX :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 2:35pm

What a perfect response. Well played sir.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 3:32pm

To be fair, football fans, as a whole, are not a group of human beings renowned for accurate observation, and a firm sense of self awareness.

by Karma Coma :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 3:29pm

It takes "a long time" in the pool to get pruney fingers, and it takes "a long time" for bismuth-209 to decay. It's a pretty context-dependent phrase.

For someone who started following the Pats in the early 1990s, 5 years is about as long as i've had to wait to see most of their players in a Superbowl. Gronk was drafted in 2010, so he's right on schedule (if we're giving him a mulligan for his monopodal appearance against the Giants).

But if i'm a Jets fan, my context of waiting "a long time" to see Geno Smith start a Superbowl will be more like bismuth-209 decay.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 3:36pm

Like I said above, football fans as a group tend to favor a context with a pretty limited horizon. Like the edge of their navel.

by EricL :: Wed, 01/28/2015 - 6:55pm

Thank you, sir, for making me laugh more at that comment than anything else I've read for the past week.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:23am

"With unnatural consistency, Gronkowski has been able to create comfortable separation against linebackers this year"

1. Plays for franchise with a flexible understanding of the rules
2. History of freakish injuries
3. Known knucklehead with authority problems
4. Fast return from debilitating injury

If this were baseball, we'd be having discussions about what chemicals are likely to be found floating in his system. I wonder how deflated *his* balls are.

by SmoothLikeIce :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 11:12am

I like that "plays for franchise with flexible understanding of the rules" is hedged with "known knucklehead with authority problems." If (as a player for a franchise with a flexible understanding of the rules) he listens to his corrupt coach, he's roiding! If (as a known knucklehead with authority problems) he *doesn't* listen to his corrupt coach, he's still roiding! A perfect argument.

by deus01 :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 12:45pm

I'm sure the vast majority of football players are 'chemically enhanced' since until recently they didn't even have a test for most things and even when they do they are apparently still easy to beat. So if the risk of being caught and punished is low but it will help extending your career and earning you millions more why wouldn't you take them?

I don't have a problem with that (assuming Dr's actually have the players best interests in mind which is really a different question) but it's stupid to pretend that it isn't extremely common.

by scraps :: Tue, 01/27/2015 - 1:53pm

That's why I don't follow baseball -- to be clear, not the steroids, but the writers and the fans.

by RickD :: Wed, 01/28/2015 - 12:38am

You never pass on an opportunity for a baseless smear, do you?

Hey, FO. Any chance of introducing an "Ignore" button? I'm really tired of this guy cluttering comments sections with insinuations and character attacks.

What an ass.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 01/28/2015 - 11:57am

For the record, I don't think Gronk is actually 'roiding. But I don't think it's baseless to wonder.

He does have a history of hinkey injuries. He does have unusual athleticism. He does have a history of thinking with his muscles. (Wasn't he suplexing people in bars with a broken arm?)

The obvious objection is -- wouldn't he get caught? Eventually, sure, probably. There are a lot of guys who get caught each year for marijuana, DUIs, PEDs, Adderal (I can't bring myself to call that a PED), etc. Those are easy to test for, too. I figure a lot of guys get away with it a lot of the time, which is why we keep seeing the occasional idiot get popped for it.

by RickD :: Wed, 01/28/2015 - 12:38am

Internet doctors are the worst.