It's been two weeks since Rob Gronkowski's return, but even with their All-Pro tight end back in the fold, the New England Patriots have not produced much offensively. Against the Jets and Dolphins, Tom Brady threw for just 344 combined yards, and though the Patriots put up a respectable 27 points in each game, inconsistencies plagued the unit for long stretches.
But while the surface numbers may seem discouraging, Gronk's re-insertion into the offense is already portending brighter days ahead. The results do not show it yet, but the Patriots entire offense has appeared significantly more dangerous because of his mere presence.
Gronkowski has only played 58.5 percent of the snaps since his return, but even in that small sample, his impact cannot be understated. Once he props back up to his customary 90-100 percent range, we may finally see a reasonable facsimile of New England's formerly prolific offense.
Every Patriots fan knows how good Gronk has been, so I will not rehash the facts we all already know. However, there is a considerably frustrated contingent who believes that this year's offense is beyond salvageable.
That is simply not true, and while Gronkowski is not a cure-all panacea, he allows Josh McDaniels to open up the playbook and make the offense immeasurably more dangerous.
Let's examine Gronkowski's impact in three different areas this season and show cynical Pats fans why the offense may be on the verge of an important breakthrough.
Impact on Other Receivers
Everyone knows that Gronk is a physical freak who presents enormous mismatches all over the field, and that is especially true in the red zone. It's no coincidence that after floundering as one of the three worst red-zone offenses for much of the season, New England has scored touchdowns on five of its six red-zone possessions since Gronkowski's return.
Even without a touchdown reception this year, Gronkowski has directly contributed to the recent uptick when the Patriots close in on the endzone. The Patriots have largely had trouble all year because they haven't had receivers who could create consistent separation. In the confined passing windows of the red zone, that can spell disaster.
On this third-down play against the Saints, the offensive line affords Brady an astounding six seconds of protection:
Unfortunately, as you can see, nobody is able to get open with New Orleans dropping eight into coverage. The play resulted in a drive-killing sack, and New England settled for three. These problems plagued the Patriots throughout the first six games, as even Brady will look mortal when given the tiniest of windows to throw into.
However, the respect Gronkowski garners in the red zone has changed that. It's not that the Patriots receivers have magically gotten better at creating separation, but often times, there are no defenders to even separate from.
On this play against Miami last week, the Pats lined up Gronkowski and Danny Amendola on the same side, with Gronk running a seam route and Amendola running a slant. The Dolphins dropped three players back into coverage to defend two receivers, so both players should have been well-covered:
However, they were not, because all three Dolphins players immediately stepped back when they recognized Gronk going down the seam. That included Amendola's man Jimmy Wilson, who realized his mistake too late to prevent the completion.
Part of this play's success was due to poor instincts by Wilson in not breaking much sooner, but one of the Pats' easiest red-zone catches this year stemmed from Gronk drawing the attention of an entire side of the defense.
The Pats have not fully reaped the benefits of Gronk's presence throughout the whole field, which is partially because of offensive line play and partially because of Brady's insistence on forcing the ball to Gronkowski at times. But the improvement is coming—after no receivers posted a positive grade against the Jets, Amendola and Aaron Dobson both made it into the black against the Dolphins.
This type of success should continue to happen as Gronkowski plays more snaps and opposing defenses are forced to commit extra attention in his direction.
Impact on the Run Game
The Patriots run game has already shown small but tangible improvement with Gronkowski back. After averaging 4.1 yards per carry without Gronkowski, New England has upped that number slightly to 4.3, despite facing a Jets team that has graded out as the best run defense in the league, by far, and a respectable Dolphins unit.
Even in playing limited snaps, Gronkowski has compiled a plus-1.5 run-blocking grade, which is a huge upgrade from Michael Hoomanwanui's mark of minus-4.7. We can actually quantify how well the Patriots have run behind their tight end, and while the sample size is obviously still limited, the improvement with Gronkowski has been undeniable:
|7 (vs. Jets)||-1.9|
|8 (vs. Dolphins)||3.6|
courtesy Pro Football Focus
The Patriots ran two fairly similar plays from near the goal-line this season—one with Gronkowski in the lineup and one without him.
These are both simple strong-side stretch runs, meaning that the tight ends are responsible for sealing the edge and springing the back into the end zone. Notice how in the Falcons clip, the Patriots actually have both Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan on that side:
Not too hard to spot the difference, huh?
In the first clip, when Bolden bounced his run to the outside, Gronk prevented his man from blowing up the play with a huge block that granted Bolden just enough room to squeak in. Conversely, the three blockers in the second clip (two tight ends plus fullback James Develin) were unable to create enough push to spring Stevan Ridley into the endzone.
Indeed, Gronkowski is nearly as potent a weapon in the blocking game as he as is a receiver, even if the former does not garner much attention for him. In 2011, his last fully healthy year, Gronk had the best run-blocking grade of any tight end at plus-13.5. For reference, that number would have ranked second among all tackles as well.
With the Patriots interior line struggling in general, Gronkowski affords an alternative to Pats running backs fruitlessly banging their heads into a wall of defenders. Don't be surprised to see more outside stretch runs throughout the rest of the season; it's been a staple of New England's no-huddle offense for the past few years, and it is the ideal play call for Stevan Ridley's decisive one-cut running style.
Ultimately, there is little doubt that Rob Gronkowski has had an immensely positive domino effect on the Patriots offense. You already knew that, but is he enough to catapult the Patriots back into serious Super Bowl contention?
Are the Patriots still a Super Bowl-caliber offense?
It's certainly feasible, but the Pats do need a few breaks. First, the injury luck needs to turn around drastically, as there are only so many untested backups and undrafted rookies that a team can plug into their lineup before the foundation falls apart.
As for things in the Patriots' control, it will be fascinating to see how Gronk eventually changes the offensive play-calling once he's back to full speed. With New England's persistent offensive inconsistencies, Pats fans have not been shy to vent their frustration about Josh McDaniels' static play-calling, myself included. While McDaniels has had some head-scratching moments (i.e., third quarter of the Week 7 Jets game), it's slightly unfair to criticize a craftsman who must work with subpar tools.
The Patriots have largely maintained an emphasis on "11 personnel" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), even with Gronk's return, as three-receiver sets still serve as an important part of the offense. But while nothing can duplicate the amorphous two-tight sets the Patriots ran defenses off the field with, perhaps Shane Vereen's impending return (likely after the bye week) will change that formula.
Vereen's receiver-like ability might allow the Pats to play more "21 personnel" (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), pairing the shifty back with Ridley, Gronkowski, and a pair of receivers. At least in theory, that package should be equally dangerous in both the run and pass, leaving defenses guessing and allowing Brady to exploit drastic mismatches.
But that's only spitballing, and no one knows how much trust this offense has with so many important pieces missing significant chunks of time. Halfway through the season, the Patriots have survived some stormy times to forge their way to 6-2, likely cushioning them enough for an AFC East title and a playoff berth.
If New England is to go any further than that, though, a huge factor will be whether or not Gronkowski and the other weapons can stay healthy and foster a more unpredictable multifaceted offense.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.