It’s playoff time and everything about the NFL right now is a little bit special, and so is this week’s Analysis Notebook.
Instead of looking at a few random plays from the week’s games, we’re going to focus instead on just one player, and the impact he had. The three plays we’re inspecting are his three touchdowns, each of which came against a different covering defender, and each showed a different facet to his game, helping to explain why he broke all-time records this season that have stood for years.
That player is Rob Gronkowski, and here Sam Monson breaks down his touchdowns against the Broncos.
1stQ, 6:48 | 2nd-and-3
Tom Brady hits Gronkowski in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard TD pass to extend the lead to 14-0.
Why it worked:
Gronkowski’s first touchdown came from a conventional tight end spot. He lined up tight to the left of the line of scrimmage, with Aaron Hernandez in the backfield flanking Brady in the shotgun. The Broncos are in dime defense with six defensive backs and a defensive front five on or close to the line of scrimmage to confuse the Patriots’ protection.
Denver plays zone defense against the route combination of Gronkowski and Hernandez coming out of the backfield and it ends up with Andre Goodman covering Gronkowski on a corner route to the back of the end zone. Two defenders stayed close on Hernandez’ hitch route underneath which leaves Goodman isolated with the big tight end. By running a Cover-3 the Broncos have effectively surrendered single-coverage to the Patriots because the single high safety is never going to be able to affect any throw to the sideline–and that is exactly where the Patriots are going.
Brady’s pass comes with Goodman in good position, making it a tough touch throw that Brady almost overcooks. The ball is just beyond where Brady wanted to put it, but the supreme athleticism and ball skills of Gronkowski rescue it. He lays out, gets one hand on the ball and controls it enough to be able to bring it in and secure it with both as he hits the ground. Though the ball did look to move when he hit the floor, the officials on review decided that he maintained control all the way through and the touchdown stood.
This is an example of how Gronkowski has the kind of size, athleticism, and skills to not only beat decent coverage, but to also rescue an off-target football with his ridiculous wingspan and catch radius.
2ndQ, 7:49 | 3rd-and-3
Brady hits Gronkowski at the 5-yard-line on a hitch pattern, which Gronkowski takes into the end zone to restore the 14-point lead.
Why it worked:
This time the Patriots are facing 3rd-and-3 deep in the red zone against the Broncos as they are trying to restore a 14-point lead. Gronkowski aligns in the front of a bunch formation tight to the left, with Wes Welker and Deion Branch behind him. The idea behind a bunch is to make it difficult for the defense to decide who is covering which receiver and to effectively get close coverage quickly as the bunch separates to attack three distinct areas of the field. It often causes confusion and a delay in the covering defender making it to the receiver, as he has to fight his way through traffic. In this instance, though, that doesn’t happen, and the Broncos quickly assign a man to each member of the bunch.
Gronkowski runs a simple hitch from his position at the top and that draws the assignment of undrafted rookie corner Chris Harris Jr. in coverage. Harris has been a pretty good player covering the slot for the Broncos, but here he finds himself simply overmatched physically.
Gronkowski attacks the young corner’s leverage and actually ends up just driving into him on his route, and then straddling the fine line between physical play and pushing off when he breaks back to the football. The disengaging of contact sends Harris rocking back onto his heels, a position from which he can never recover, because Brady is cocked and in the process of throwing the ball even before Gronkowski has turned all the way around to it.
By the time Gronkowski catches the ball, Harris doesn’t have a chance to cut him off before he can turn and make the final five yards into the end zone for the score. This is a perfect example of a play where a smaller defensive back just can’t match up physically with someone of Gronkowski’s size and strength. The Broncos tried it with Harris, and he just lost the physical battle in the route.
2ndQ, 0:10 | 1st-and-10
New England piles on the misery as Gronkowski catches a 19-yard touchdown to make the score 35-7 at the half.
Why it worked:
Gronkowski is again lined up in a receiving stance, split just to the left of the line of scrimmage. This time the Patriots have elected to spread the field, with Gronkowski joining three wide receivers and Aaron Hernandez again lined up in the backfield as an additional threat.
Denver is in their dime defense again with six defensive backs, two linebackers, and Von Miller up at the line making three defensive linemen to rush the passer. Miller actually beats Matt Light quickly enough to get a hit on Brady as part of the three-man rush, but by that point the ball is already in the air and the damage is done.
The Broncos are playing zone against the Patriots’ spread formation, and this time Gronkowski finds himself all alone in the middle as Denver manages to blow the coverage entirely on the big tight end. Joe Mays lined up over Gronkowski and tracks him in his backdrop, but then releases him when Gronkowski makes his break on the post towards the middle of the field. At that point, nobody else picks him up, and the two deep safeties have backed up far enough that they can’t stop him before he has crossed the goal line.
Safety David Bruton (playing in the box) recognizes the problem by reading Brady’s eyes, and turns looking to get in on the play, but he is way too late for that, and the finger of blame for the blown coverage seems to lie elsewhere. D.J. Williams playing the middle of the field drops deep, but turns entirely to the other side of the field looking to cut off a similar pattern from Wes Welker, and instead has his back to Gronkowski running uncovered into the space he runs away from.
Matching Gronkowski up on a linebacker is unlikely to end well at the best of times, as he is just too fast and slick a route runner, but when those linebackers fail to cover him at all, then you are just gift-wrapping reservations for six.