By Oliver Connolly
The Patriots may have improved their record to 10-3 on Sunday (by the skin of their teeth) but the result has paled into insignificance to the organisation who lost the most dynamic game changer on their roster.
Six games into the season with the Patriots boasting a receiving core that included; an undrafted rookie, a former college quarterback and a starting Tight End who they would later cut and send to their rival Jets, they were 22nd in scoring throughout the league.
When Gronkowski returned in week 7 things took a drastic turn upwards. In the six games he was available the Pats launched themselves up the scoring standings to the sixth and second during the six week span. Personally, Gronk grabbed 37 catches for 560 yards and four touchdowns, looking slimmer, more agile and athletic than ever.
Unfortunately his return to the Patriots and overall league dominance was cut short following a blow to his right leg that ultimately left him with torn MCL and ACL ligaments. *update* Gronkowski also suffered a concussion during the hit.
The question now remains, what will New England’s offense look like? How do they replace the dynamic tight end?
The Patriots’ have switched up their offense this year. They’ve moved from a base two tight end package following the loss of Aaron Hernandez, to more ‘eleven’ personal sets; one running back, three wide receivers and one tight end.
This package gives them more versatility as Gronkowski can be lined up either in a closed position or flexed out at receiver. With the Patriots continuing to run up-tempo they are able to utilize exploit man coverage more and more (man coverage is favored more by defenses when facing an up-tempo offense). The Patriots ability to run the same personnel package whilst having the ability to switch up their formations has been a vast part of their success this season. Brady is able to pick his match-up with Gronkowski and Vereen a constant mismatches or he’s able to check the ball down to Julian Edelman who’s been consistently running crossing, drag and in-to-out patterns.
Gronkowski has potentially the largest catching radius for any tight-end in the league. He is the ultimate mismatch for any defensive coordinator. It takes a very special mic linebacker or safety to be able to take away Gronkowski’s physical tools whilst being able to defend his catching radius. Defenses usually solve this problem by doubling up on him. Either in straight up coverage or a floating zone running down either of the seams. With the way defenses had to scheme against him he drew away additional defenders from other targets, opening up acres for the wide receivers and backs.
In no other phase of the game was this more utilized or effective than in the redzone (See fig.1). Before he returned the Patriots’ were a poultry 30th in red zone efficiency lacking and players who could consistently beat press-man coverage. With Gronkowski back, the Patriots’ rose to fifth in red zone efficiency, and he tied the team lead for red zone targets.
Although Gronkowski is known for his effect in the passing game he also has a major impact on the Patriots’ ability to move the ball on the ground. His contribution to the run game was more in presence than technique. Defense were not able to stack the box on first and second downs due to his vertical speed. His overall run blocking seems to have decreased with the four forearm surgeries taking their toll on his ability to effectively move pass rushers looking to generate inside leverage. No one benefited more than running back Steven Ridley who scored six touchdowns during Gronkowski’s return.
Taking Gronkowski out of New England’s offense has potentially as big an impact on his team’s scheme as anyone else in the league. To put it simply the drop off in terms of personnel is staggering. The Patriots have three other tight ends on their roster (re-signed DJ Williams on Monday). Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan have a combined nine years of league experience and 51 receptions. Neither brings the same athleticism to the position or an ability to stretch the field laterally or vertically. Both are decent run blockers, but their inability to create open space at the intermediate level will create problems for Brady’s alternative weapons who’ve enjoyed some success of late.
Despite not being able to use one personnel grouping the Patriots’ are likely to sill bring the up-tempo style week in week out. They’ll be looking for quicker pass patterns and will use bunch formations to allow smaller and shiftier receivers such as Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen to run option routes and create some space.
As I eluded to, one of their main issues will be a lack of size on the outside. Amendola has shown the ability to contort his body to make every catch, Julian Edelman has become a fantastic safety blanket and Vereen just broke franchise records for running back receptions and receiving yards. But each of these players stand under six-foot and have shown an inability to consistently beat man coverage on the outside. Their main hope will be rookie receivers Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson pair their physical stature with more refined route running and mature as receivers to be able to beat man-to-man coverage consistently and grow into game changers.
The Remainder of the Year
It’s difficult to figure out where the Patriots go from here. They’ve brought back recently released TE DJ Williams to fill Gronkowski’s roster spot. But consistent pass catchers are few and far between on the open market right now.
Although each of Austin Collie, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have had their moments this season. None have displayed the ability to be a consistent number three behind Edelman and Amendola.
Their focus will now shift more drastically to the run game. Expect a lot of mixed and split backfields. Bolden and Blount will see a lot of the ball as battering rams, whilst Ridley will be utilized outside of the tackles and out of the backfield. Shane Vereen will see his role converted into a premium slot receiver as well as being a part of two-back sets.
We know we can never count the Patriots out. They’ve shown an ability this year to get over losing Welker, Hernandez, Llyod and Gronkowski. But the stats speak for themselves. Losing Gronkowski is as big a loss for this team as Calvin Johnson or Adrian Peterson would be to their respective sides.
You cannot rule this team out for a playoff run. But with Wilfork, Mayo and numerous defensive starters out this team is now relying on an offense that was pure anemic when Gronkowski was last out.