The New England Patriots have now played—and won—two games without All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski. Life without Gronk hasn't been devastating for the Pats, and old adages hold firm: The rest of the offense must continue to "step up" in his absence. But don't let the early returns fool you into thinking the Pats don't need Gronk.
Yes, the Pats are an elite team, one whose success is predicated on a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense. But Gronkowski is an instrumental part of New England's system, and the Pats will need his irreplaceable skill set to advance through the AFC's elite and bring home a fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Let's take a look at what Gronk brings to the Pats that no one else can.
According to ProFootballFocus' evaluation metrics, Gronk grades out cumulatively as the Patriots' fourth-best pass blocker and second-best run blocker, despite the fact that he's missed two games. League-wide, he grades out as the NFL's best run-blocking TE and 12th-best pass-blocking TE.
So he's a good blocker. Let's take a look at one of many examples of Gronk's mauling ability on the line.
It's Week 5 against the Broncos, and the Pats are up a touchdown late in the first half. It's 3rd-and-1, and the Pats are marching near midfield.
The Broncos stack nine in the box, with a safety deep. The Pats are in the hurry-up, running a single-back (Brandon Bolden, green circle), three-WR formation with Deion Branch and Wes Welker tight to the line. Gronkowski (yellow circle) is lined up in a three-point stance on the right side of the line.
Safety Mike Adams (red circle) charges in toward the line of scrimmage right before the snap.
The play-call is a run off-tackle to the right.
It speaks volumes of the Pats' faith in Gronk as a blocker that they would run to his side on a crucial short-yardage situation.
By the time Bolden gets the handoff, Gronk has already engaged Adams (both players in red circle) and dominated the defender at the point of attack. You can see him beginning to drive Adams back and create the C-gap hole.
Vollmer (No. 76) does a decent job on the DE, though he trips him up more than anything. Branch seals off the CB to the outside, which forces Bolden to bounce through the gap occupied by Gronkowski.
But Gronk has completely mauled the defender. Adams is now five yards upfield, and there's a huge hole for Bolden. Gronk drives Adams back another five yards before he comes off the block and chases Bolden downfield.
Look at that red oval. Gronkowski has moved his man seven yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, and Adams is still stumbling backwards.
Adams eventually brings down Bolden, but not until he has rumbled 24 yards downfield to the Denver 31.
That play was keyed by Gronk's monster block, and it set up a field goal to put the Pats up by 10 at the half.
It's this ability—not just to maintain blocks but literally clear defenders out of running lanes—that makes Gronk so useful as a blocker.
A Top-Notch Receiving Option (Especially in the Red Zone)
Gronk is one of the best, but there are a lot of great blockers in the NFL. The thing that makes Gronkowski such a personnel nightmare for opposing defenses is that he's a great blocker and one of the most productive receivers in the league.
Oftentimes, tight ends are one-dimensional, and the TE personnel on the field can tip the defense's hand as to what type of play is being run. That's the case with the Pats' other TEs.
For example, if Michael Hoomanawanui and Visanthe Shiancoe—two big, strong Pats TEs—are on the field as part of a twin-TE or Jumbo set, then the Pats are probably going to run. But if Daniel Fells and Aaron Hernandez—two TEs capable of establishing separation with their athleticism—are on the field, the Pats may be thinking pass.
But Gronk's versatility makes it hard for the defense to guess what's coming. This is especially true near the goal line, where the opposing team often has no idea whether the Pats plan to run the ball behind Gronk or look for him as a receiver in the end zone.
Let's take a look at a play during which the Pats capitalized on an opponents' defensive personnel.
It's Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills, and the Pats are looking to go up by 14 near the end of the first half. They're knocking on the door, with a 2nd-and-goal on the Bills' 2-yard line.
The Pats are in a Jumbo set, with six down lineman and two TEs—Gronkowski (red circle) and Shiancoe. They've got a third TE—Hoomanawanui—in as a FB.
It's a classic goal-line run behind your big uglies set, and the Bills are ready for it. They're in a goal-line defense, with eight men at the line of scrimmage and three in the linebackers' box.
It looks like a smash-mouth play is about to unfold, right? Well, that's the beauty of Gronkowski.
Apologies if the giant orange arrow I drew on the play gives away what's about to happen—but if you're such a hardcore fan that you're spending your afternoon checking out diagrammed plays of a Week 10 game, then you probably already know.
Shiancoe (green circle) comes in motion across center, and Bills safety Jairus Byrd (matching green circle) follows him, hinting that the Bills are playing man coverage.
Pats QB Tom Brady knows that if OLB Bryan Scott (nearside end) comes in on the overload rush, then he'll have Gronk one-on-one with Kyle Moore, the Bills DE (Gronk and Moore are in the red oval).
It's play-action, but Brady (green circle) doesn't even bother selling it—he's already got his eyes trained on that right side. He sees Scott rushing in (Gronk is already behind him) and knows he's going to have that one-on-one with Gronk.
From Brady's eyes, you can tell that Gronk is his first read all the way. But Moore actually does a decent job riding Gronkowski to the outside and cutting off any throwing lanes (plus Gronk stumbles), so it's going to take a fade over the top to make this connection.
Brady finesses a teardrop over the DE, and Gronkowski turns and makes a sensational catch. He turns, dives, catches the ball over his front shoulder and secures it against his body for the touchdown.
There simply aren't many (if any) tight ends who can provide such elite blocking that the defense doesn't think twice about a pass when they're out in the Jumbo set, and then also make an amazing catch like that.
The Pats are stacked at TE, but—like everyone else—they have guys who can do one of those things or the other.
Only Gronk can do both.
The Good News
Alright, so Gronk is a monster. At the time of his injury, he had accounted for almost half of the Pats' receiving TDs (10 of 21), and he was a huge part of the Pats offense on the ground and in the air.
The Pats may be able to win in the regular season without him, but in the playoffs—especially on the road—things get dicier.
They'll need to be able to run the ball consistently, and they'll need a red-zone threat to convert scoring opportunities into TDs, not FGs.
Brady seemed to miss Gronkowski in last week's matchup against the Miami Dolphins, a team with a tough red-zone D that gives up a lot more yards (20th) than points (11th). The Pats had to settle for field goals in that game at times when Gronk could have helped them punch it in (remember Welker's drop in the end zone?). A more explosive offense than that of the Dolphins might have made the Pats pay for their failure to score TDs.
Thankfully for Pats fans, it looks like Gronk should be back by the playoffs. As Michael Giardi of Comcast SportsNet reported,
Been told that it's best case scenario for Gronk following surgery on arm this morning...so think shorter end of timetable.
Given that Gronkowski's "timetable" was originally reported to be 4-6 weeks, that's an acceptable situation for the Pats.
Four weeks gets him back for the Pats' game against the San Francisco 49ers. Six gets him back in time for a tuneup in the final week of the regular season against the Miami Dolphins.
Either way, it looks like the Pats will have their second-best offensive player back in time for another Super Bowl run.
That's good news for the Patriots and bad news for the rest of the league.
Especially if they can't get out of the way of those Gronk spikes.