Rob Gronkowski played his first game of the season for the New England Patriots, against the New York Jets, in Week 7. Even though the Patriots lost the game in overtime, by a score of 30-27, the young superstar tight end finished with eight receptions for 114 yards and had a huge impact on the game.
With all the struggles of the Patriots' passing offense in recent times, it's no surprise quarterback Tom Brady repeatedly looked to his returning receiving option throughout the game. Brady targeted Gronkowski an incredible 19 times.
Even though one of those targets resulted in an interception, all of that fault lands on Brady's shoulders, and an offensive pass-interference penalty from Gronkowski was offset by a defensive penalty. There were a few plays Brady and Gronkowski left out on the field between them, but the offense, as a whole, will definitely have felt more familiar to fans who were looking on.
With just his fourth pass of the game, on the Patriots' first drive of the game in the first quarter, Brady found Gronkowski on a route he would repeatedly run with success during the game.
It was 2nd-and-10 on the Patriots' 36-yard line. Gronkowski will initially line up on the right side of the field, and he will be in single coverage against New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis.
Gronkowski is running an out route 10 yards down the field. He runs straight at Davis and engages him at the top of his route. The tight end doesn't extend his arms when they meet, but he uses his strength to knock the young linebacker backward. This creates enough space for Gronkowski to come clean out of his route.
Because of Gronkowski's ability to create separation against the linebacker in space, Brady has a very simple throw for a first-down conversion.
The above play wasn't just a reflection of Davis' inability to cover Gronkowski either. Somewhat ironically, the big tight end overpowered the linebacker, but later in the game, he used his crisp route-running ability and quickness to lose Jets safety Antonio Allen.
This play came late in the fourth quarter, when Gronkowski caught two passes for 33 yards on four targets, while the Patriots went into a hurry-up offense for a game-tying field goal.
This one came at the beginning of overtime. This is the type of play Gronkowski brings to the Patriots offense. It's not something that can be easily replicated by Michael Hoomanwanui, Matthew Mulligan or even any of their current group of wide receivers. Those players will create first downs on easy throws at times, but not consistently against any kind of defender like Gronkowski.
On one or two other similar plays to those above, Brady didn't find Gronkowski after he came free on the exact same route.
Wide Catch Radius
The benefit of having wide receivers such as Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola is that they are all very quick. However, each of those receivers is also quite small. Not only is Gronkowski 6'6" and more than 260 pounds, he has a very wide catch radius as he is a natural hands catcher.
Because of that catch radius, Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for defenders even when covered or double covered. That was the case when he ran down the seam late in the second quarter just before Stevan Ridley's touchdown run. Gronkowski didn't catch the ball, but a holding penalty gave the offense a first down on 2nd-and-15.
On the very first drive of the game, Gronkowski showed off how he's not just a big-bodied tight end, but also a natural receiver.
The Patriots come out with two tight ends to the left and two wide receivers split wide on the right. It's 1st-and-10, so the defense must respect the run threat of the Patriots. Therefore, they have eight defenders in the box and just one safety deep. Gronkowski is lined up as the inside tight end and is going to run down the seam.
He takes a knock from the defensive end and the linebacker, as he releases into his route, but he is able to absorb those hits and keep moving comfortably. Gronkowski runs clean down the seam and is never covered by Allen who can't get to him quickly enough or the safety coming across the field.
As he's running down the field, Brady throws the ball slightly high and behind him. Gronkowski doesn't panic, as he adjusts to the ball in the air and makes a natural catch with his hands. Even as he stumbles forward and falls to the ground, he maintains control of the ball for the big reception.
Gronkowski is stopped short of the end zone, but his 30-yard reception sets up the Patriots' first score of the day.
Position Flexibility/Impact on Defense
With hybrid tight ends of a certain standard, the ability to move them around the field is what really maximizes the potential impact of the individual on the offense as a whole. Gronkowski can play anywhere on the field and gain a matchup advantage, but where he lines up on the field also affects how teams set up their defense.
Here, on 2nd-and-3, the Patriots send Gronkowski out into the position of a wide receiver. Gronkowski is covered by a cornerback, which is an immediate matchup advantage, but because of the down-and-distance combo, the defense can't send a second player to double-team him, or the Patriots will simply run for the first down.
Instead, the Jets play zone coverage and react to Brady when he takes the ball at the snap. However, this makes Brady's read on the defense much easier, as he immediately stares at the linebacker to Gronkowski's side of the field. That linebacker is running into the flat, while Gronkowski is running a short curl route with his cornerback dropping off deep.
With one sharp turn, Gronkowski is wide-open because the linebacker can't travel faster than the football. Brady slightly overthrows the pass so his tight end doesn't get the first down, but Gronkowski makes the catch for a simple gain.
Even though this play fell short, it shows off how Gronkowski affects the defense in a bigger way than just catching passes. It's much more difficult to game-plan against the Patriots when he is on the field.
That play was the only reception of the day for Gronkowski that didn't cover at least nine yards. So even though he's not a speedy wide receiver such as Randy Moss, he does have the ability to make plays down the field that will help free up his teammates.
While Geno Smith and the Jets got the best of Brady and the Patriots in Week 7, the Patriots got something back that will help them win many more games this season. The short-term loss on the field will be more than compensated for by the long-term victory that the team's passing attack is gaining.