Last year, after a devastating loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, a lot of folks started writing off the New England Patriots -- specifically their quarterback, Tom Brady -- for dead. It just didn't look like that offense was ever going to get back on track, and Brady himself looked damn near shot. Then, all of a sudden, the Pats offense and Brady went on a six-game hot streak like most of us have never seen. That hot streak helped propel a team that started out 2-2 to end the regular season at 12-4 and eventually go on to win the Super Bowl.
Talk about one hell of a turnaround!
While many people primarily attributed that turn around to Brady finding his "mojo" again, I have always maintained that the biggest factor was actually Brady getting All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski back on the field and 100 percent healthy for the first time really all year.
Go back and look at the week after that loss to the Chiefs. Gronk had six catches and 100 yards with a touchdown to boot. That was the first time in five games last season that he had over 44 yards receiving. How absurd is that?
Now watch this, the Pats scored 37 or more points in six out of their last 12 games after losing to the Chiefs. Gronkowski had at least 94 yards receiving in all but one of those games six games. He also scored at least one touchdown in all but one of those games.
Correlation or causation?
Whichever you believe, its pretty clear that Gronk had at least a good bit to do with that offensive turnaround, maybe at least as much as Brady.
That trend has continued on for most of this season. The Pats scored 36 or more points in four out of their first 10 games, and Gronk has gone over 100 yards receiving and scored a touchdown in three out of the four. It's fair to say that as Gronk goes, so does that Patriots offense.
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I was eager to watch the film from Monday night when the Bills found a way to both limit Gronk to season lows in receptions (2) and yards (37) while also keeping him out of the end zone. They also limited the Patriots to their lowest point total (20) of the season. I did not think it was a coincidence at all that Gronk had his worst day on the same day the Patriots offense also had their worst day. Up until Monday night, "stopping" Rob Gronkowski has been something of aspiration more than an actual accomplishment this season. So, I needed to know if it was just an aberration or if Rex Ryan actually pulled a rabbit out of his hat and schemed Gronk out of the game?
After watching the film it turns out it was a lot more the latter than the former.
You may recall that I had some pretty harsh words for Ryan after the first meeting between these teams. That one saw the Bills get their friggin' teeth kicked in 40-32. If you don't happen to remember that game just understand that it wasn't nearly as close as those garbage points in the second half by the Bills made it look.
Gronk had one of his most productive performances of the season in that game, catching seven balls for 113 yards and a touchdown. The defense on the whole just looked passive all day. After blitzing the hell out of Andrew Luck in Week 1, Ryan looked positively scared to send pressure after Brady, and the Bills paid for it. There was also a ton of criticism directed at Ryan because it didn't appear that he actually had a plan on how to deal with Gronk at all. That reluctance to send pressure, as well as the lack of a plan for Gronk was a recipe for disaster in Week 2, but on Monday Night Football Ryan exorcised both of those demons.
This time around, out of 44 gradable drop back passes, Ryan sent five or more rushers seven times. In addition, Ryan also found creative ways to blitz guys who were off the line of scrimmage, while still ultimately ending up with only four rushers. The Bills had a free runner (unblocked rusher) bearing down on Brady on four out of the six times Ryan dialed up one of those "four-man blitzes," and on a fifth play Nigel Bradham beat the center off the snap for another quick pressure. That means that he had pressure or the appearance of pressure on almost 30 percent of Brady's drop backs.
The Bills were also able to get pressure with just their front four all night long. As a group, those guys ended up with eight pressures and a sack on the other 31 drop back passes, where there were only four or fewer rushers and they were all lined up on the line of scrimmage. Add it all up and it would be pretty accurate to say that the Bills really got after Brady's ass on Monday night.
That Brady was hurried a lot means he didn't have a whole lot of time to decide who to throw the ball to. That being the case, there were several times when Gronk had opportunities down the field, but Brady just didn't have enough time to get the ball to him. I'm sure every defense that comes into Gillette stadium does so with the understanding that they need to get pressure on Brady to win. It just so happens the Bills were actually pretty successful at it while most teams aren't. In turn, all that pressure on Brady helped to limit the looks Gronk received.
The second and maybe more important factor to the Bills shutting Gronk down were the different looks they gave him in coverage. Almost the only time that Gronk could be relatively sure how he would be played in coverage was when he was split out wide. When Gronkowski was lined up as the widest receiver at the numbers or wider, the Bills' corners would either line up in press position about a yard off the line, or 5-7 yards off.
They almost always had him man-to-man, with one small wrinkle. In the first game the corners tried to jam Gronk when they lined up in press position, but on Monday night they didn't try to jam him at all. It was a smart move because Gronk showed in the first game that he could easily beat the jam at the line of scrimmage, leaving the corners in trail position.
The Patriots ultimately couldn't make them pay for it, even though Brady threw several fades to Gronk in Week 2 that fell incomplete. But the Bills had to be wary of letting him get beat deep like that again. Brady doesn't usually let you off the hook a second time. This time the corners just mirrored Gronk off the line, understanding that once he got going left or right they were athletic enough to keep up with him regardless of his size advantage.
Gronkowski actually stayed in to block on eight of the 44 passing plays, some of that owing to the pressure the Bills were sending, so he was actually out on routes on only 36 of those 44 plays. On 12 out of those 36 plays he was lined up as the widest receiver. He ended up with only one catch for 10 yards, which just so happened to come on the Patriots' first passing play of the game. On the other 11 snaps when he was out wide, he saw one pass thrown his way, which, depending on your perspective, he either dropped, was a bad pass or maybe even a pass breakup by the corner. Regardless, he wasn't streaking up the sideline past the Bills corners on Monday night like he was in Week 2, so that was a win for the Bills.
On the other 24 passing plays where Gronk was out as a receiver, there was really no telling who might be covering him. The Bills double-teamed him on 13 of those plays, with one player within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage usually playing on his outside edge, and another defender, many times the single high safety, playing deep and inside of him.
On a couple of occasions the Bills actually had their linebackers treat Gronk like a gunner on punt team. They double teamed him, physically, before he got 5 yards up the field and tried to keep him from ever getting down the field.
There was also one time when Gronk was literally triple-teamed. A guy being triple-teamed is talked about a lot but actually pretty damn rare. The Bills actually did it with a linebacker (Nigel Bradham), a defensive tackle (Corbin Bryant) and a safety (Bacarri Rambo).
The other 11 plays were either zone or someone had Gronk man-to-man all by themselves. It's safe to say that it was apparent that limiting Gronk was something woven into the game plan and not just happenstance. Rex Ryan made a concerted effort to make sure Gronk didn't beat him and it damn sure worked.
Which isn't to say that Gronk didn't still get open at times. Hell, he did have that one 27-yard catch on a great corner route throw by Brady, but the pressure on those 36 plays usually forced Brady to go elsewhere.
Let me say this, too, while I'm at it. The overall game plan that Rex Ryan devised this time around was actually pretty damned awesome. The execution at times left a lot to be desired, but the plan itself was fucking masterful. I know it may not have looked that way at times, especially with the shitty commentary during the game, but it wasn't an accident that the Patriots only scored 20 points on Monday, and three of those points came after the fumbled punt return by Bills safety Leodis McKelvin.
Yeah, it was windy.
Yeah, guys for the Pats were hurt.
Yeah, that game plan was also kick ass, tho.
All three things are true.
The question on most people's mind I imagine at this point is if Ryan's blueprint can be duplicated. That's something I'm not really sure about. For one, just watching something on film doesn't always fill you in on the why's of what's going on. That goes for why Ryan is making that call against that personnel or on that down and distance, and why is this guy blitzing while that guy is covering on this particular defense? That's before you even get into whether another team has the kind of personnel to execute a similar game plan.
What I can say for sure is that, other than the few times guys either had mental busts (Danny Amendola's 41-yard reception that set up the Pats' third-quarter touchdown) or missed tackles (James White's touchdown reception right before halftime and Amendola's 18-yard reception earlier on the same drive), Ryan's plan worked damn near to perfection. They were able to take Rob Gronkowski out of the game plan for the Patriots both with pressure and coverage looks, and that had a trickle down effect for the rest of the Patriots' offense.
Can that be duplicated? Who knows.
But you can bet your ass other teams will try. And guess what, don't tell anybody, but the Broncos do at least have the horses to pull it off.
I'm just sayin' ...