Rob Gronkowski requires special attention from a defense. Players have to know where he is on EVERY SINGLE PLAY. That’s just step one. Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised how many teams have neglected to address him, instead just playing the defense they play every single week and acting as though #87 for the Patriots is just another guy. For weeks, we’ve scratched our heads out how inept defenses have been against Gronk. We’re talking about some of the best defensive minds in football who have allowed him to run freely through the middle of the field unimpeded. He has made them pay.
On Sunday, a team finally treated Gronkowski as he has to be treated. The Packers actually appeared to have gameplanned specifically for him, and doing so helped slow down a very potent offense.
The first thing Green Bay did was disrupt him at the line of scrimmage on a handful of plays. Because Gronk is such a big-bodied receiver, he needs to take several steps to build up momentum. When he releases off the line unimpeded, he can explode out of his cuts and create separation from defenders. Not to mention, when untouched, he is where he needs to be, ready to catch the ball when Tom Brady hits his back foot and wants to throw. This is why slowing Gronk down is key. He takes longer to stop and start because of his size. If disrupted effectively, Gronk doesn’t get completely into his route by the time Brady wants to get rid of the ball. The below screenshot shows a perfect example.
Here, Gronkowski was jammed at the line by Clay Matthews. Matthews was able to get under his route and had help from two other defenders. Brady stared Gronk down, waiting for him to turn. But Gronk wasn’t as far into his route as he would have been if given a free release off the line of scrimmage.
Brady held the ball, and this gave the pass rush time to get to him. By the time he found his next receiver, he had to hurry his throw because of the pressure. The result was an incompletion.
The Patriots had several plays throughout the game where Gronkowski was aligned on the outside. Most of the time, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was aligned over him in man coverage.
Clinton-Dix did a great job of staying inside, between Gronk and Brady, and using the sideline as his help.
This created tougher throws for Brady, which limited the chances of a successful play. The result here was an incompletion.
This type of coverage also forced Brady and Gronkowski to have to read the defense the same way on the fly. Instead of just allowing Gronk to run freely downfield, knowing exactly what to do against a straightforward defense, Gronk had to make a decision about whether he should run a curl or a go route against this type of coverage AS he was running his route. This isn’t tremendously complicated. It’s something very common to NFL passing games. However, it adds an additional element to the play. Gronkowski had to be thinking the exact same thing as Brady. On one play in the 4th quarter, the duo was not on the same page. Gronk ran a curl while Brady expected him to run a go-route. Brady threw deep for a harmless incompletion. Even one wasted play in a tight game like this can make a difference.
On the Packers’ biggest defensive play of the night they were once again very aware of Rob Gronkowski. With a little more than 3 minutes remaining in the game and trailing by just 5 points, the Patriots had a 3rd-and-9 from Green Bay’s 20-yard line. This time, the Packers used zone coverage to handle Gronkowski on the outside. Below, you can see the pre-snap look. The Packers had corner Davon House, safety Micah Hyde, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix ready to defend Gronk.
House played over top of Gronk. Hyde would buzz underneath him at the snap. Clinton-Dix sat in the intermediate level ready to defend any in-breaking route.
Brady saw this pre-snap and decided to not even work Gronk’s side. The Packers effectively took away New England’s best weapon on the biggest play of the game. Brady looked to the other side of the field instead, where he had 3 receivers versus 3 defenders and a deep safety over top. The Packers played these routes beautifully, Brady had nowhere to get rid of the ball at the top of his drop, and this gave the pass rush time to get to him for a crucial sack.
The Packers used several different methods to defend Rob Gronkowski on Sunday. The key thing is that they did enough to keep Brady from releasing the ball right at the top of his drop on every play. Gronkowski wasn’t necessarily shut down by the Packers. He still caught 7 passes for 98 yards. However, it took 12 targets, and it wasn’t as easy for Brady to get him the ball as it has been all season. This kept the offense from operating at its normal high level.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers did not do anything extraordinary or revolutionary on Sunday. He simply used common sense and made sure his defense actually paid attention to Rob Gronkowski. Teams around the league should take heed and perhaps attempt to emulate this approach.