How Patriots Can Make Up for Rob Gronkowski's Absence vs. Dolphins on MNF
The New England Patriots head into Monday night's game with the Miami Dolphins desperately needing a win. New England travels to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, and they need a win in Miami to keep pace with the Steelers atop the AFC.
While the Patriots are one of the league's hottest teams right now, winning in Miami isn't going to be easy. The Dolphins played the Patriots tougher in New England than the final 35-17 score would indicate. Their defense harassed Tom Brady all game long and forced him into committing two turnovers.
This time around Brady isn't going to have Rob Gronkowski at his disposal. Thanks to a boneheaded—and very dirty—after-the-play hit on Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White, Gronkowski will be suspended on Monday night.
Without Gronkowski, Brady isn't going to have one of his top targets, and the Patriots won't have their biggest offensive mismatch. Pats fans don't need to panic, though. There are a few ways New England can help make up for Gronkowski's absence. We're going to examine them here.
Utilize Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister More
With Gronkowski out of the lineup, the Patriots should give more looks to fellow tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister. They play the same position, they're on the roster and Brady should throw a few passes their way.
While this may seem like common sense, the Patriots haven't used Hollister and Allen much this season in the passing game. The two have just eight receptions, 77 yards and one touchdown between them.
The last time Gronkowski missed a game, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the pair remained afterthoughts in the passing game. Neither caught a pass in that game.
The Patriots need to take a different approach against Miami. The more guys on the field the Dolphins are forced to worry about, the more mismatches the Patriots will be able to find in the passing game. Allen and Hollister aren't as dynamic as Gronkowski, but it's not as if the two have no physical ability at all.
Before joining the Patriots, Allen averaged roughly two receptions and 25 yards per game for his NFL career. That may not be special, but it's production New England could use.
Focus More on the Ground Game
Gronkowski is more than just a receiving weapon and a mismatch. He's a big, reliable target who helps allow Brady to get the ball out quickly. That will be missed in this game, as the Dolphins pass rush can be disruptive.
While Brady was only sacked once in the last meeting, he was hit and hurried early and often.
To limit the hits on their quarterback, the Patriots should take the ball out of his hands as often as possible. This, of course, means leaning more heavily on the running game.
The Patriots ground game has been on the upswing ever since Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead earned larger roles in the backfield. Lewis is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, while Burkhead and James White are each averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry.
As a team, New England is averaging 4.2 yards per rush.
Miami, on the other hand, is ranked just 20th in the NFL against the run—allowing an average of 116.5 yards per game on the ground. Attacking the Dolphins on the ground won't just help make up for Gronkowski's absence, it will be playing against a Miami weakness.
Put White and Burkhead on the Field at the Same Time
A bigger role for Burkhead has helped the Patriots ground attack, but the former Cincinnati Bengal is also an asset in the passing game. This is why New England should tinker with putting him and White on the field at the same time in passing situations.
Burkhead has racked up 24 receptions for 204 yards and three touchdowns. White, meanwhile, is third on the team with 51 receptions for 410 yards and two scores. The Dolphins would have to worry about covering each of them with both on the field.
In all likelihood, this would leave at least one of the shifty backs in a mismatch against a non-coverage linebacker. While this isn't the same as getting Gronkowski one-on-one with a linebacker, it's a mismatch the Patriots could take advantage of.
This would likely mean less rushing work for Burkhead, but the multi-dimensional back doesn't seem like one who would mind.
"[I'm] Just trying to find whatever role I can to help the team out," Burkhead said, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal. "Help get wins. That's the ultimate goal."
Utilize Chris Hogan in Space
Creating mismatches is a big part of the Patriots offense. This is why the potential return of wideout Chris Hogan can help ease the absence of Gronkowski. Hogan has missed the last four games with a shoulder injury.
According to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, though, Hogan is likely to play against Miami, barring a setback.
Hogan is an explosive playmaker who has already racked up 33 receptions and 438 yards in just eight appearances. While the former Bills receiver is best known as a speedy deep threat, he can be dangerous underneath and in space.
This is where the Patriots should utilize Hogan against the Dolphins. Put him in the middle of the field and try to create mismatches with safeties and linebackers. While he won't create the size mismatch Gronkowski can, he can go up favorably against defenders with his quickness, agility and clutch route running.
Use James Develin in the Passing Game
Fullback James Develin isn't as big a part of the passing game as guys like White and Burkhead. In fact, he's traditionally been more of an afterthought in the passing game than anything. He has just five receptions for 36 yards this season.
Those five receptions are one shy of the career high he had in 2014.
More often than not, the Patriots are going to run the ball or use Develin as a decoy when he's on the field. This is why a couple of timely passes to the fullback could catch Miami off guard.
Develin isn't the type of player who is going to create mismatches, but if the Dolphins leave him uncovered, he can still make plays. Perhaps more importantly, a couple of early passes to Develin would give Miami defensive coordinator Matt Burke something to think about later in the game.
Keep Throwing Deep to Brandin Cooks
As we've established, the best chance for the Patriots to create mismatches in the passing game without Gronkowski is on underneath routes and routes over the middle. To help create those opportunities, the Patriots need to maintain the threat of the deep-passing game.
Gronkowski is usually one of New England's best downfield targets. Without him, the responsibility for stretching the defense falls mostly on Brandin Cooks—though it wouldn't hurt to use Hogan and Phillip Dorsett on some deep routes.
Fortunately, Cooks is both a supreme downfield receiver and a dedicated player.
Cooks is the Patriots' most dangerous receiver aside from Gronkowski—he already has 886 yards receiving and five touchdowns. A few deep passes to him early should prompt the Dolphins to bring deep safety help over the top. While this will leave Cooks in double coverage, it will open things for other pass-catchers underneath him.