Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski are tearing up the Patriots defense during the first week of training camp. Okay, okay. It’s training camp. I know it’s worthless and I’m not putting any value in it but I needed a lede…
Gronkowski and Bennett being so effective reminded me to write this article though.
Rob Gronkowski is a scheme breaker. Gronkowski allows the Patriots offense to dictate how the game will go against the majority of defenses. He blocks like a sixth offensive lineman and can’t be covered by any single defender, be he linebacker, safety or cornerback. With Gronkowski on the field, it’s easy for Tom Brady to create a matchup advantage for his offense. If the defense comes out in a light personnel package, Gronkowski’s run blocking creates a heavy package to counter it. If the defense comes out in a heavier personnel package, his receiving ability will expose them in space.
In 2015, the Patriots signed Scott Chandler to be Gronkowski’s primary complement. Chandler isn’t the same caliber of blocker as Gronkowski, but his receiving ability in such a huge frame made him appealing.
With Gronkowski dictating, Chandler would theoretically improve as a blocker because the Patriots could put him in more favorable matchups against defensive backs or lighter linebackers. Only the very best defenses would have the ability to line up at the snap without giving up an obvious matchup advantage to Brady that he could attack. Bill Belichick had a clear plan to rely on these matchups on goal-line plays last year.
This play comes from the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ Week 1 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s Third-and-1 and the Patriots come out in their heavy package. Branden Bolden is in the backfield, LeGarrette Blount was suspended for this particular game, with Chandler lined up as a fullback in front of him.
To the right of the offensive line, the Patriots have a tackle eligible lined up inside of tight end Michael Hoomanawanui who is offset.
As teams traditionally do in this situation, the Steelers replace their cornerbacks with linebackers and defensive linemen. They are expecting the Patriots to run the ball so have five defensive linemen on the field with five linebackers and just one safety. That one safety is a run-stopper more than a coverage player, Will Allen, the team’s strong safety at the time.
Recognizing the personnel is what allows the Patriots, and Tom Brady, to dictate the matchup so it is in favor of the offense rather than the defense on this play.
Brady can be seen calling to Hoomanawanui just before the above gif begins. As you watch the gif for the first time, watch Brady instead of watching Hoomanawanui. He stares at the defenders who move outside with Hoomanawanui. He stares until Allen, the only safety on the field, signals to Ryan Shazier that he needs to move back inside to leave Allen alone on Hoomanawanui.
Moving Hoomanawanui first meant that the Steelers prioritized him with their one defensive back on the field. Hoomanawanui against Allen isn’t a favorable matchup for the offense. It’s not a bad matchup, it’s closer to neutral than anything.
As soon as Brady recognizes that Allen is moving outside, he turns and tells his other two tight ends to shift outside. Gronkowski moves wide left, outside the numbers on the wide side of the field. Chandler lines up in the slot but still in space because the ball is on the opposite hash. Both tight ends are faced by linebackers.
So at the second stage of the set, Brady is still under center with Hoomanawanui wide to his right, Gronkowski wide to his left and Chandler in the slot to his left. At this point of the play, Brady has options. Because the Patriots have a tackle-elligible on the offensive line, running the ball in would be a good option. The Steelers have kept as many defenders as they can between the tackles to counter the run though, so the more favorable matchup is outside.
Chandler has Lawrence Timmons in the slot, a favorable matchup for him but a matchup that features the Steelers best coverage linebacker. Gronkowski has Terence Garvin on him, someone who isn’t normally on the field. A backup linebacker who played five snaps on defense in this game and just eight snaps on the whole season.
The result of that matchup is inevitable.
For most of its history, the NFL has been a league that has prioritized big linebackers who could stop the run. Those players are slowly being replaced by coverage linebackers who can do just enough against the run to stay on the field. Players such as Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Thomas Davis have become stars because of their athleticism and coverage skills.
In the third quarter of this Week 1 matchup, the Patriots used the same pre-snap action but ran a separate route combination to force the Steelers linebackers to try and move like defensive backs.
Defending this route combination as a cornerback is extremely difficult. Doing it as a linebacker is almost impossible. If the ball is thrown on time and the tight end doesn’t drop it, he’s almost assured of scoring. Lawrence Timmons actually defended this play relatively well considering what he had to do. Had Chandler not reached the ball forward after catching it he may have even prevented the touchdown.
With Chandler, the Patriots had options when they wanted to throw the ball.
Chandler and Gronkowski could run a variety of routes so they were never predictable in this formation. Defensive backs couldn’t predict fade routes on every snap and set themselves up accordingly.
Both receivers had the ability to win one-on-one matchups in isolation against linebackers, safeties or cornerbacks. Whether it was on a slant, a curl or a fade route, the combination of size, quickness and ball skills meant they always gave themselves a chance at catching accurate passes.
As the second gif above highlights, there was just one problem.
Chandler didn’t live up to expectations. He had health issues but mostly his performances dipped because of inconsistency. This shifting approach was something the Patriots relied on heavily at the beginning of the year but then it disappeared for most of the season. That made little sense because of its effectiveness in creating opportunities to score even if those opportunities weren’t always taken advantage of.
Belichick obviously didn’t forget about this play though. When he signed Martellus Bennett, he was adding one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL and one of the best receiving options at the position.
On his own, Bennett is one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He had a down year last year, struggling with his consistency catching the ball, but his skill set is a significant upgrade over Chandler’s. Bennett is stronger and quicker with better ball skills. He will take advantage of the opportunities that are created for him in the passing game, but he will also provide a major upgrade in the running game. When the Patriots have an eligible lineman on the field with Gronkowski and Bennett, they will essentially have eight offensive linemen to run block for them.
The only way you can match up to that rushing game is with big bodied defensive linemen and linebackers.
Well, you’ve seen what happens when they are put on the field…
Clay Harbor should also provide an upgrade over Michael Hoomanawanui, the tight end who was traded to the Saints during last season. Harbor can line up as a fullback or tight end if required. The Patriots have done a great job of using Gronkowski to create favorable matchups for Brady since drafting him. With these added weapons, Brady won’t just have one favorable matchup on every play. He will have layers of favorable matchups from which he can choose the one that comforts him most.
For most defenses, there isn’t a solution. You need big linebackers who can cover like cornerbacks and defend the run like a defensive lineman. There are only a handful of those in the league.
If defenses take the typical approach in the redzone that they all tend to do, prioritzie stopping the run to force the quarterback to make a theoretically tight window throw, then Gronkowski and Bennett could very easily combine for 25 touchdowns.