New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski, a threat on the outside?


New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are continuing to find new ways to make Rob Gronkowski even more dangerous. I know, you probably didn’t think it was possible.

Since he entered the league in 2010, only one thing has been able to slow Gronkowski down – injuries. For the first time since 2011, Gronk lasted an entire year without missing time due to injury. It’s no coincidence that the Patriots made the Super Bowl both years, and a case could be made that they would have won in 2011 had Gronkowski been healthy (he was injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens).

One thing is certain – Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. Pro Football Focus gave Gronkowski a grade of +22.9 in 2014, which was significantly higher than every other tight end in the league (Jason Witten was second with a grade of +14.2). Gronk is obviously effective from the end of the line, both as a blocker and a receiver, but PFF also noted how effective he has been out of the slot. His 2.51 yards per route run from the slot position were the highest in the NFL – among tight ends and wide receivers.

Amazingly, Gronk appears to be ready to dominate from another position – split-out wide as the outside receiver. Writing for MassLive, Kevin Duffy noted how successful the Patriots have been with Gronkowski out wide and Julian Edelman in the slot on the same side of the field.

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According to Duffy, in Weeks 1-11 last season, Brady attempted 47 passes with Gronkowski lined up as the outside wide receiver, and completed 35 of them. Belichick and McDaniels clearly noticed the success, because these numbers shot up to 50 pass attempts and 41 completions in the postseason.

Of course, there is the memorable touchdown from the Super Bowl. With just over 30 seconds left in the first half, Gronkowski lined up wide right. The Seahawks, playing man coverage, matched with linebacker K.J. Wright. The result was an easy 22 yard touchdown.

Then, on the Patriots’ final drive of the game, Gronk aligned split out wide three separate times, which resulted in an eight yard completion to Shane Vereen, a nine yard completion to Edelman, and a 13 yard completion to the Gronk himself, again in a one-on-one situation with Wright.

Duffy noted that Brady threw 11 passes with Gronkowski out wide in the Thursday night opener against the Steelers, completing nine passes for 71 yards and three touchdowns. They used the same formation twice on the goal line – both Gronkowski and Scott Chandler motioned out to the left, with Gronk split wide and Chandler in the slot.

On the first touchdown, the Steelers over-committed to Gronk which allowed Chandler to catch the easy score. The second time the Patriots used the formation, the Steelers tried to prevent the pick play, allowing Gronk to catch the easy fade in the corner of the end zone.

Of course, the Patriots become even more dangerous when Edelman lines up in the slot on the same side of the field. Duffy also tracked these stats, and concluded that in the past two seasons, Brady is 17/17 when throwing to Edelman based out of this alignment, and 44/56 overall.

The pair play off each other extremely well – a perfect example is in the AFC Championship Game, when the Colts over-committed to stopping the slant to Gronkowski in the red zone, allowing Brady to complete an easy 6 yard pass to Edelman who had broken outside for the first down.

The addition of Chandler is one of the reasons why the Patriots feel like they can use Gronkowski more frequently on the outside. Last year, Tim Wright was not a strong enough blocker to play every down at tight end, while Michael Hoomanawanui is not a receiving threat. Chandler, however, is a good enough blocker and threat at receiver that he can be effective from the position, allowing the Patriots to move Gronkowski all over the field. The injury to Brandon LaFell has also created a need for a physical receiver – something that describes Gronk perfectly.

It will be extremely interesting to see what Rex Ryan and the Bills’ defense have in store for Gronkowski and the Patriots. Stephon Gilmore wants to cover Gronkowski – and he may get the chance if this trend continues. In the past Ryan has succeeded by having his defense clog up the middle of the field and limit yards after the catch.

If he resorts to a similar strategy, however, the Bills may find themselves being burned by Gronkowski outside the numbers. As good as Gilmore is, he won’t be able to take Gronkowski in single coverage – no one can.

Next: Tom Brady is King of the QBs after Week 1

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