Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 performance set all-time NFL records for a tight end for yardage (1,327) and touchdowns (17). He was one of the league’s most dominant forces and had such an impressive season that he ranked sixth in the PFF Top 101 players list.
When he played the Oakland Raiders in Week 4 he was held to a single catch for 15 yards largely by the work of Tyvon Branch, who shut Gronkowski down like nobody else was able to manage all season. We took a look at Branch in a recent Secret Superstar article and noted how well he had played Gronkowski as well as other receiving tight ends, and decided to investigate further. So, just how did he do it?
The Raiders played almost exclusively man coverage in this game, which is obviously what they do best, but also an extremely gutsy thing to do against the Patriots who have a series of players built to destroy that strategy. They caught a break with Aaron Hernandez out of the game, but even though they handled Gronkowski, Wes Welker sliced that man coverage for nine catches, 158 yards and a touchdown (and came up about six inches shy of a second score).
That is the beauty of the Patriots’ offense: you can never shut everything down–if you take away one option, they simply move on to something else and kill you all game with that. Nevertheless, the Raiders are the only team all season to really shut down Gronkowski, and that is what we are going to look at.
The majority of the work was done by Tyvon Branch, though the Raiders did occasionally replace him in coverage against Gronkowski with Joe Porter and Jerome Boyd. Whoever was over him, the game plan was the same: aggressive man coverage, engaging as soon as possible at the line.
In essence, Branch was left on his own against Gronkowski most of the game, and simply beat him one-on-one, but there were some schematic quirks that the Raiders employed to help Branch out at times. When Gronkowski lined up in tight to the line, the Raiders often aligned their defensive end wide, essentially funneling Gronkowski’s release directly ahead between the defensive end and the defensive tackle on that side of the formation. This meant that he had to release into a channel and right into Branch, who would stack the gap and ensure that he could get his hands on the big tight end almost immediately. Branch is one of the few defensive backs in the league that is strong enough to deal with Gronkowsi coming straight at him, and this alignment meant that he didn’t have to contend with any fakes or sidesteps in the release.
From that point, Branch could simply ride Gronkowski down the field as he tried to run his route. Safeties tracking big tight ends over the middle will get away with a lot more contact than corners out on the edge against wide receivers, and there were several plays in the course of this game that could easily have been penalties for the contact involved, and surely would have been had it been corner on receiver.
The Patriots were obviously well aware of how effective the Raiders were at taking away Gronkowski, because they were quick to go to him if he was ever left open. With 1:22 to go in the first quarter, the Raiders started to do something a little different. They had Branch in man coverage with BenJarvus Green-Ellis out of the backfield, on the far side of the formation from Gronkowski. Instead of putting Porter or Boyd on him as they would opt to do elsewhere, they left Rolando McClain with the task of covering him.
That was all Tom Brady needed to see, and he immediately went deep to Gronkowski up the seam. To McClain’s credit, he was in good position all the way through and made a solid play on the ball to deflect it away, but the job Oakland was doing on Gronkowski was clear, and any time Branch was not on him, Brady was going to try and get him the ball.
His only reception of the game came with three seconds to go in the first quarter. Gronkowski was split out in the slot on the left of the formation and Tyvon Branch was once again in coverage, but this time playing off-man rather than press coverage at the line. The Patriots threw a quick out to the tight end and Branch had just left himself too much real estate to make up to stop the play.
The reason Gronkowski was so unstoppable last season is because teams didn’t have players that could match up with him reliably and take him out of the game. He is also too big a target–and Brady too accurate a passer–to contain with zone coverage. He is a savvy enough receiver that he can attack the space between zones and Brady can get the football into those spaces, or high enough that only Gronkowski can come down with it, removing any chance the zone coverage has of stopping the plays.
Oakland went a different route. They eschewed zone schemes in favor of their usual aggressive man coverage, and found a guy who could live with Gronkowski both athletically and physically at the line.
In a league where players like Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are becoming unstoppable forces as teams struggle to match up with them, everybody is looking for a safety with the kind of coverage skills to be matched up one-on-one and win. It turns out the Raiders have exactly what everybody is looking for in the shape of Tyvon Branch, who just might be the best man-coverage safety in the league.