We all agree that Rob Gronkowski is a first-class superstar. That’s why it feels so counterintuitive to say this: Gronkowski’s absence will not impact New England’s bottom line in 2016.
It’s true. This team had the most wins and third-most passing yards in the AFC before Gronkowski’s season-ending back injury. And that’s where they’ll be at the end of this month, when they enter the postseason as the AFC’s odds-on favorites.
Without Gronk, nothing substantial changes in the way the Patriots go about business. On Sunday, for example, they faced a Rams defense that, despite falling on its face at New Orleans the week before, has been more than stellar for much of the year, New England featured a variety of screen passes out of three-receiver groupings and running plays out of two-back sets. Both were tactics that negated Los Angeles’s considerable advantage along the defensive line. The screens offset the pass rush; the run plays featured angle-blocks that offset the explosiveness of Aaron Donald and Co. Next week the Patriots face an even tougher Ravens front seven. They’ll probably take an entirely different approach and throw from spread formations.
None of these tactics are contingent on having a great player like Gronkowski. He liberalized New England’s approach, but he did not define it. His greatest value was his versatility. As Bill Belichick explained to The MMQB prior to the season, the tight end does all the “formationing” in New England’s system. He’s essentially an H-back, slot receiver and wide receiver rolled into one.
Gronkowski did all of these things at the highest of levels, creating glaring matchup problems. No. 2 tight end Martellus Bennett, on the other hand, can do everything Gronk does, just at a lower level. And so his matchup problems are more nuanced.
But that’s all Tom Brady needs. Brady is so keen in his awareness before the snap and precise in his accuracy and timing after it that he can get through the cracked doors created by Bennett’s matchup problems just as easily as he gets through the wide open doors created by Gronk’s. All that matters is the door not be shut. And as long as the Patriots can still employ their designs, it won’t be. Play designs are concepts, not people. They can’t have an “off day.”
Gronkowski was out early this season and Bennett, of course, wasn’t here in 2015. Over this time, these Patriots became a three-wide receiver base offense. That simply continues. New England is great out of three-wide, even in relying on lower-drafted players like Malcolm Mitchell or Julian Edelman, or in retread veterans like Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. Against corners, these receivers—save for the dynamic Edelman—can look pretty average. But against zone linebackers in space, they can be great. Especially with a quarterback who doesn’t just identify the zone coverage, but also the specific aspects within it. As long as the Patriots have a tight end who can move around the formation, these receivers can keep running shallow routes, and Brady’s exploits against zone coverage can continue.
The only way a defense can offset these matchup problems is to line up and play straight man coverage, allowing corners to shadow wide receivers. Here, the Gronkowski absence becomes more pronounced because he was the one guy no defense had an answer for. But many teams—including the Rams on Sunday—are still reluctant to play regular snaps of man coverage because the Patriots are so well-schooled on rub routes, stack releases, picks and crossing patterns, tactics that inherently defeat tight man-to-man.
And let’s not forget, the Patriots lost the ultimate man-to-man chess piece in Gronkowski, but they gained (a granted, lesser known) one in Dion Lewis, who returned from his 2015 knee injury two weeks ago. Gronkowski, with his strength and speed, created matchup problems that often impacted safeties. Lewis, with his agility and quickness, creates problems that impact linebackers. He’s among the handful of NFL running backs who can threaten a defense anywhere as a receiver, be it split out wide, in the slot or in motion. Defenses must have a specific plan for handling Lewis, and just like with Gronk, how they reveal that plan will tell Brady everything he needs to know.
In the Patriots’ perfect world, they’d have an offense with two chess piece who can move anywhere on the board. While one piece is all they need to dictate the action, two can make them unstoppable. They thought they had obtained this after making the trade that teamed Bennett with Gronk. As it turned out, it’ll be Bennett and Lewis. A less imposing tandem? Sure. But not a less imposing offense.