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Gronk & Friends

Updated on October 31, 2017

When run correctly, the 12 personnel package can be more dangerous than the many different kinds of three-receiver sets that dominate the playbooks of so many offenses throughout the league.

When you’re a defensive coordinator, attempting to maximize personnel matchups, as well as trying to stay sound against a team who has the ability to go up-tempo at any moment.

So how do defensive coaches approach such a challenge as this?

On the surface, having two tight ends on the field presents the opposing coach with a simple solution: put your base defensive personnel on the field and let them fight it out.

With such an increased emphasis on the passing game, even now compared to about a decade ago, combined with the type of versatile athletes who seem to be showing up on the roster to play the tight end position, the challenge is finding enough sound and varied strategies to contain the pass and run threats.

We'll take a look at several plays from the past few years since Gronkowski joined the Patriots roster.

Gronkowski

A case can be made that for all intents and purposes, Gronkowski should be treated as a receiver when the defense is trying to determine the type of offensive personnel on the field (12 vs 11). Even in practice, he can spend time with the offensive line or even run wide receiver drills to work on footwork and hands.

In fact, that’s what a couple of teams did, including the Bengals, deciding to leave a defensive back on the field and line him up across from Gronk when he’s flexed out wide in the formation, even on run downs. But why?

For one thing, Gronk just isn’t the force in the run game that might think. His impressive size and frame aside, Gronk doesn’t make his living as a run-blocker. It’s not one of his strengths, and as a result he’s not asked to do a whole lot of it.

The little bit he is asked to do involves a lot of getting in the way of the guy across from him just long enough so that the guy in the backfield carrying the football can make a decision in a hurry get vertical. Gronk isn’t a run-first tight end, but then again New England isn’t a run-first offense, so the partnership works pretty well.

In order to stay on the field as New England’s primary tight end, he needs versatility.

Put another way, Gronk doesn’t need to be a great run blocker, he doesn’t need to be a good run blocker, he just needs to be “good enough” at the limited number of things he’s asked to do in that department.

Is he a liability in the run game? In some ways yes, but in whatever ways having a guy like Gronk on the field limits the Patriots in the run game, he adds so much of a threat in the pass game that the words “net benefit” come to mind when describing what he brings to the table.

As for the rest of the tight ends on the roster, they all have their parts to play as well, and in this article we’ll go into detail about how the New England coaching staff makes sure to put them all in places to be successful.

When run correctly, the 12 personnel package can be more dangerous than the many different kinds of three-receiver sets that dominate the playbooks of so many offenses throughout the league.

When you’re a defensive coordinator, attempting to maximize personnel matchups, as well as trying to stay sound against a team who has the ability to go up-tempo at any moment.

So how do defensive coaches approach such a challenge as this?

On the surface, having two tight ends on the field presents the opposing coach with a simple solution: put your base defensive personnel on the field and let them fight it out.

With such an increased emphasis on the passing game, even now compared to about a decade ago, combined with the type of versatile athletes who seem to be showing up on the roster to play the tight end position, the challenge is finding enough sound and varied strategies to contain the pass and run threats.

Play #1

Play #1 - Analysis

#84 Brian Tyms runs the deep curl from a tight split, breaking in slightly at 20 yards, but finally coming back to the QB at 25 yards.

In this scenario, the left corner gives Tyms a free release off the line of scrimmage, since he’s originally playing outside leverage on the stacked formation with Julian Edelman before he goes in motion.

By lining up in a stacked alignment away from the run strength, then running a playaction fake to Jonas Gray to the right, they limit the resistance the defense can give Tyms off the line of scrimmage.

The wing alignment and playfake are also there to influence the strong safety and keep that passing lane open, since in theory at least, the safety should have to play out n the edge against the run in the alley. However the strong safety does a great job of sniffing out the pass, and sits underneath the deep out route as Edelman cuts to the sideline right at the chains, which takes away the throw.

Edelman is the first read in the progression, and his split coming across the formation when he settles with a medium split from Gronkowski, in order to give himself plenty of room to run the route.

Since Brady is looking to his right to Edelman out route right away as he’s coming out of the playfake, but since Indy’s strong safety is sitting right in the passing window, Brady has to wait for Tyms to break open on his deep curl route, which actually doesn’t take as long as you might think.

By coming off the throw to Edelman, re-establishing himself and reseting his body in the pocket, Brady just needs to take a single hitch step, and firing the football to Tyms in anticipation of Tyms breaking out of his route at his assigned depth.

The only issue on this play is that Brady puts the football a little too far to the outside for Tyms to react in time as he’s coming out of his break at the top of the route. Brady was trying to get the football away from the grasp of the free safety, who was in a great position to take away the throw if it was too far to the inside.

While the defensive front seven sells out against the run, the defenders on the back end are playing quarters coverage, which in this case allows them to play aggressively against the run while doubling both receivers that are attacking deep down the field, as the Patriots offense loves to do so often.

Play #2

Play #2 - Analysis

Here we have a conscious effort by the New England offense to force the defense into a decision as to how they’re going to align to such an unorthodox formation. Part of the reason is because, no matter what you want to call it, either man or zone coverage, at the start of the play, you’re going to have a guy the size of Rob Gronkowski lined up across from a corner half his size. The wide splits of the receivers assure the offense that they’ll get the look they want.

Not only is this kind of matchup advantageous for the guys lined up on the outside, it’s also great for the two guys, Edelman and LaFell, lined up much closer to the inside of the formation. Conversely, they’ll end up having a defender lined up across from them that is likely less athletic than they are, and won’t have the ability to run with them across the field or make a tackle in space.

The tight ends on either side of the formation have a lot of leeway when it comes to their route, since on this play, the outside routes are really just designed to open up space in the middle of the field for Edelman and LaFell. Depending on the cushion (or lack thereof) from the corner, the tight ends can either run a fade route against a pressed corner, or if there’s a big cushion over the receiver, he can settle down and run a hitch.

Play #3

Play #4 - Analysis

New England has a pretty good idea of how Detroit will be playing this particular formation, going four deep in their zone coverage in an attempt to double the inside vertical receivers, since the Patriot offense has already established a tendency in this game to throw a lot of seam routes from their empty sets. In response, the Lions have aligned themselves in such a way that their defensive backs can collapse on any kind of deep vertical routes coming from the slot, and let the underneath coverage guys collapse on anything else at a lower depth.

By lining up in an empty set, the Patriots give a great example of a why having guys like Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright on the field at the same time can be so dangerous for opponent defenses.

By having that flexibility to come out with two tight ends and a tailback (Vereen) in the backfield, yet still line up in an empty formation and challenge the defense with a vertical passing game, it becomes incredibly difficult for an opposing defensive coordinator to get a handle on what to expect when the offense is substituting new personnel into the game.

In this scenario, the offense is trying to attack the middle of the field, which explains why they’ve got everyone so spread out in their alignment. This play is designed to go to either Edelman or Gronkowski, and their routes complement one another well, since Gronk has a little bit of room to work to get open against the defender to his side, but for the most part he can’t afford to move too far to the inside off of his break, since Edelman is assigned to break in at the same depth coming from the other side.

Edelman and LaFell are running a miniaturized version of what some would call a “levels” concept, which usually involves three receivers with two running underneath routes, and a third coming over the top of both of them with a dig route. The Patriots often pair this concept up with others in their passing attack, especially when aligned in a spread out look like this.

At the snap, Brady reads the middle of the field, and watches the Will linebacker, originally lined up over the top of the nose, flying out to help bracket Gronkowski as he drives vertically up the field. Since now the Will has cleared out, the only other underneath defender he needs to be concerned with is the nickelback covering the Edelman.

As his eyes go to the nickel corner, Brady watches him drop off of Edelman’s route once he sees LaFell coming underneath him. The nickel defender essentially hands of Edelman’s route to the deep safety to that side, since that’s why the coverage was called in the first place. However the free safety is nowhere near close enough to make a play on the football, since his drop has taken him so deep in anticipation of the route hitting much deeper.

As Brady slings the football into Edelman, there is all kinds of room for him to turn up the field and pick up some serious yards after the catch.

Play #4

Play #4 - Analysis

Tim Wright #81 comes into the game as the 2nd TE and he’s matched up on Maxwell. He goes in motion from left to right taking Maxwell with him. After surveying the defense now that Wright ends up in his final spot, Brady brings the next man in motion, and once again it’s Edelman.

The look from the Patriots is a familiar one, putting the TEs to one side of the formation, and both receivers to the other side in order to force the defense to declare their intentions and to maximize any matchup advantages the offense may have should Seattle decide to go with a more balanced alignment with the guys in the secondary.

The Patriots are most likely thinking that this is 4-down territory, which makes Brady more comfortable with throwing the underneath route and letting Edelman do what he does best. From the current line of scrimmage, it’s a 53-yard field goal, and it’s a little too close to punt, so if the Patriots can pick up a few yards, they may be able to set up a more manageable 4th down situation.

The stacked receiver alignment forces #27 the nickel Tharold Simon will have to give ground and line up 3-4 yards deep behind Sherman in the stacked alignment. This creates the space to run the shallow crossing route over the middle. This read and throw also has a lot to do with leverage and numbers to the TE side.

Brady is wary of the alignment to Vereen’s side of the formation. Since both the Sam linebacker and Chancellor are aligned far outside against the flat route, so he knows the middle is going to be wide open with the aggressive stance the defensive front is taking.

Brady delivers the ball and Edelman breaks a tackle for a long gain on 3rd and long to pick up the 1st down.

Play #5

Play #5 - Analysis

As Tim Wright crosses in front of the strong safety, he takes advantage of the open space in the middle of the field, as well as the fact that the underneath defenders come on the blitz that opens up the passing lane to Wright on the dig route.

For all intents and purposes, the offense has put Edelman and Wright in a dual bunch that allows the two of them to work in conjunction with one another. It’s a formation and an alignment that New England has used for a while as part of their base offense, and now the defense comes with an interesting adjustment.

The dual bunch is aligned so tight to the offensive line, just a few feet split out from the right tackle, since the inside receiver goes vertical but Edelman hitches up at five yards underneath. One of two defenders rushes and the other walls off the underneath route.

If the middle fo the field is occupied by the linebackers and the safety, Brady can wait for the deep dig by LaFell at the Z receiver position to come open as he’s working against the man defender to his side.

Gronkowski’s alignment wide to the left, when he’s splitting the difference between the numbers and the sideline, is primarily to get a look from the defense, and see how they’ll react or align to such a dangerous playmaker all by his lonesome to that side.

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    • Ty Tayzlor profile image

      TT 

      3 weeks ago from Anywhere

      Patriots just use an evolved version of Joe Gibbs H-back offense

    working

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