How the New England Patriots' Offense Can Thrive Without Rob Gronkowski
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But star tight end Rob Gronkowski won't be a part of the action.
The two-time Pro Bowler broke another bone in his left forearm against the Houston Texans in the Patriots divisional round win. He had season-ending surgery to repair the damage on Monday, as reported by Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com.
Even though Gronkowski's campaign is over, New England's is anything but.
After No. 87 suffered the initial break in Week 11, the Patriots went 4-1 in his absence. And if head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can make the necessary offensive adjustments versus the Ravens, that Gronkowski-less record will improve by one win.
Here is how New England's offense can continue to excel without the help of Gronkowski.
Stick with the Two-Tight End Set
Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui will be critical.
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The Patriots may be without one member of the two-headed tight end monster, but the two-tight end set cannot be abandoned.
It is from this base formation that New England has been able to effectively run the ball to keep defenses honest. This season, the Patriots ranked seventh in the NFL with 2,184 rushing yards and first with 25 rushing touchdowns (per ESPN.com).
That success on the ground would be stifled if the three-wide receiver set was brought back into the fold. Wideouts simply don't have the size or blocking ability of tight ends. In turn, the rushing attack would lose its disguise and defenses would have fewer blocks to break before teeing off on quarterback Tom Brady.
Thanks largely to New England's depth behind Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, operating out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) remains the offense's strong suit.
Backup tight ends Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui have made contributions when called upon this season. Yet, having combined for only 194 yards on nine grabs this year, what Fells and Hoomanawanui do best isn't noticeable on the stat sheet.
With a tight end hugging the edge of the offensive line, the defense is forced to commit a linebacker. This manipulation of the defense's responsibilities often leaves the flex tight end (Hernandez) either covered by another linebacker or a defensive back.
One significant mismatch and suddenly the dangerous Hernandez is freed up for a respectable gain.
All in all, the balanced two-tight end set is New England's bread and butter. It's too late to turn away from what has worked so well to this point.
Line Up Running Backs at Receiver
Shane Vereen was an unexpected receiving threat last weekend.
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Defenses are compromised when multi-dimensional running backs line up as receivers.
That's why New England's Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen are X-factors.
Often playing in the shadows of 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley, both Woodhead and Vereen have made their mark in the receiving game. During the regular season, the two racked up 48 receptions for 595 yards, 28 first downs and four touchdowns.
But during last weekend's playoff game against the Texans, Woodhead left after the first play with a thumb injury and did not return. It seemed as though the Patriots would lose some versatility from the running back spot. However, Vereen stepped up in Woodhead's place and caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
While Vereen also gained 41 yards and scored once on the ground, it was his TD grab in the fourth quarter which highlighted how fearsome a tailback can be in the Pats' passing game.
The 2011 second-round pick set up as the "X" receiver and ran down the left sideline for a 33-yard over-the-shoulder snag. The closest man to stopping him was Houston linebacker Barrett Ruud, who was overmatched by Vereen's athleticism.
When an offense breaks the huddle, defenses have to account for the personnel confusion a halfback can create as an impostor wide receiver.
New England exploited the advantage last week and shouldn't shy away from doing so against Baltimore.
Target Underneath Receivers in Red Zone
Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez have picked up the slack without Rob Gronkowski.
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The Patriots were the most efficient NFL team inside the opponents' 20-yard line this season, scoring touchdowns on 69 percent of their red-zone opportunities, according to TeamRankings.com.
However, the majority of that red-zone success was due to Gronkowski, who caught a team-high 11 touchdowns in just 11 regular season games.
How will the Patriots cap off drives without the 6'6", 265-pounder?
The same way the passing offense did the last time Gronkowski was out—by relying on Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to find pay dirt.
Although no other target has caught more than six touchdown passes this year, Welker and Hernandez combined for six touchdowns while Gronkowski was inactive for five weeks. The rest of the team had five receiving touchdowns during that time.
Both weapons have expertise running drag routes, dig routes and bubble screens. So if the two inside pass-catchers can find open space in the red zone, Tom Brady is just one short throw away from a score.
Turn Up the No-Huddle Offense
The hurry-up offense has hampered defenses.
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New England's offense is lightning quick because of its no-huddle approach, which bars defenses from making substitutions and proper adjustments.
That rapid pace should continue to pay dividends—even without Rob Gronkowski. After all, the Patriots managed to put 41 points up on the board versus the Texans after Gronkowski left the game.
The more snaps an offense runs, the more likely an offense is to score. The Patriots are well aware of that, as New England's offense played more downs and scored more points than any other NFL team during the regular season, cites ESPN.com.
When the Patriots host the Ravens this weekend, expect the no-huddle offense to be at full force to keep Baltimore's aggressive front on its heels.
The Pats have gone hurry-up for well over 300 plays this year, according to Bleacher Report's AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz. Although, as Frenz points out, the Patriots didn't really crank up the no-huddle until after their loss in Baltimore earlier this season.
In other words, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo should get a better look at the up-tempo offense he called a "gimmick" via Twitter.
Commit to the Rushing Attack
A balanced offense will be pivotal.
Running the football isn't flashy. It doesn't always produce 20-yard scampers. And it's definitely not timely when trailing.
But committing to the run has been the Patriots gateway to victory this year.
According to ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates, New England is 13-0 this season when they eclipse 100 rushing yards. When the Patriots fail to break the century mark, they are 0-4.
One of those four losses came the last time New England encountered Baltimore on Sept. 23. The Ravens held the Pats' ground game to 77 yards and only 2.3 yards per attempt.
This time around, the Patriots must meet the Ravens head on. Baltimore may be riding the emotional momentum of linebacker Ray Lewis's looming retirement, but the Ravens did allow the 12th-most rushing yards in the NFL this season, per ESPN.com.
If tailbacks Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen can get by Baltimore's edge-rushers, then a 100-yard output and a win are in the cards.