The New England Patriots have been a scoring machine for years, thanks to head coach Bill Belichick possessing an offensive understanding that's missing in so many defensive-minded head coaches. The best formula for football strategy might be the defensive-first coach who embraces an attacking style of offense.
With quarterback Tom Brady at the helm, the Patriots have ranked in the top six of Football Outsiders' top five in offensive DVOA for five years in a row. The offense has ranked in the top 10 for 11 years now, bashing the rest of the AFC East and much of the rest of the NFL for over a decade.
Even worse for the rest of the league, in the last five years, the Patriots have found the perfect formula for building elite offenses that still leaves enough salary cap for Belichick's defenses. That formula generally goes: Tom Brady + strong OL + replaceable cogs = dominant offense.
The Patriots have generally only had one big-time playmaker on the roster at any point, instead tying up their money on Brady, linemen, and defenders. However, in the 2010 draft, they found a rare playmaker who has had a multiplier effect on the formula: tight end Rob Gronkowski. They've been unlucky with his health in the playoffs, but when he's on, they are truly elite.
The Patriots offense
The Patriot offensive system is all about attacking defenses with formations, motion, personnel packaging, tempo, and overall versatility. Unlike big college programs or other NFL franchises that have a John Wooden-like philosophy of "we'll just do what we do," the Patriots system is all about having the flexibility to attack what you do.
Ultimately, they are keyed by a spread passing game, but they can also pound the ball on the ground, as Indianapolis found when LeGarrette Blount took 30 carries for 148 yards in the AFC Championship. Having the flexibility to get after people with the quick passing game, vertical routes, or with a power running game is a great challenge, and there aren't many skill players who can facilitate such dynamics.
A dominant feature back may help provide an excellent run game and perhaps serve in the passing game as well, like Marshall Faulk and "the greatest show on turf," but he can't do much for your deep passing.
The dynamic slot receiver is a great tool in the quick game and perhaps even a vertical threat, but putting a smaller body in the middle of the field doesn't help the run. It often detracts from it.
The big outside receiver can attract attention with vertical routes and attack spaces underneath, but he won't be involved in running the ball.
But the dominant tight end? At 6'6, 265 pounds, Gronkowski is a mobile blocking surface with the rare blend of size, fluidity, acceleration, hands, and route running. That makes him a nightmare as a blocker, vertical threat, and in the quick passing game.
With Gronkowski, the Patriots have found a playmaker who can serve the entire system. He turns all the replaceable cogs that Brady generally drags through the playoffs into problems.
The Gronk effect
Playing as an inside receiver gives a player very specific ways to impact a play. On the positive side, you find yourself matched up against linebackers and safeties, who are there for their ability to play tough inside the box and not for their ability to lock down receivers. On the negative side, there is less room to navigate and opponents can bracket you with defenders to all directions.
Slot receivers generally thrive because they have the short-area quickness to get separation from slower linebackers and safeties. Gronkowski has similar quickness, and worse, a great grasp on the Patriots' option routes and how to find the open spaces in coverage.
So not only is Gronk quick enough to beat these defenders and get open, when the ball arrives, he also has the size and hands to box out opponents and give Brady a huge target.
When Gronk gets a defender on his hip and Brady delivers the ball with timing and accuracy, there's not much anyone can do to stop him. It makes him a devastating red zone weapon. The Patriots ranked fifth this season in red zone touchdown percentage.
For the most part, the Patriots line up Gronk on the line of scrimmage, close to the scrum, where he can wage war in the seams. He's particularly nasty here when used in empty sets.
He can serve here as a sixth man in pass protection or go out in a route, where he's positioned to do a lot of damage. To begin with, he's going to suck in defenders to the middle of the field, which is a challenge for the defense, given that there are four other receivers on the field. Any extra attention paid to Gronk means less available resources to defend quick flat or vertical routes by the receivers.
Stopping the Patriots from hitting quick routes on the backside of their Y-stick combination -- or getting slot receivers like Julian Edelman room underneath after Gronk has carried away middle field defenders -- can seem impossible at times.
Additionally, Gronk is excellent at running options routes in the middle and finding open grass deep. At times, Brady can find him even when he's bracketed by defenders, because of their chemistry combined with Gronk's freakish abilities.
While the Patriots love to attack teams, the Seahawks are designed to invite attack. Brady will know where the vulnerable parts of the Seattle defense will be, but Pete Carroll's defense will dare him to exploit them.
The big problem in this matchup for the Pats is that the Seahawks use the fireproof model of roster building, with long athletes all over the secondary. They'll look to address Gronkowski as they would any other tight end, playing their base cover 3/cover 1 defense while dropping strong safety Kam Chancellor on him.
Against the Patriots' dreaded empty formations, the matchup might look like this, with Gronk as the "G" and Chancellor as the "$":
The Seahawks can send Chancellor some help vs. Gronk, but the safety's ability to at least survive this battle without needing lots of extra eyes could determine the game.
One challenge will be when the Pats send Gronk on deep out routes. Seattle's best bet will be to sacrifice some of their edge rush and use their ends to bump Gronk at the line of scrimmage, then play Chancellor and the linebackers underneath him while Earl Thomas ("F" below) plays over the top.
In this instance, the Seahawks would be vulnerable on the backside (left), either if they struggled to handle the outside receiver without Earl around or if the other slot receiver began shredding the W linebacker.
If ... if ... Chancellor is enough of a freak to provide the Seahawks with an answer for Gronk, then they can draw up ways to handle him and the Patriots' concepts all day long. Then, they can just look to rally to the ball whenever anybody else catches it.
On the other hand, if Gronk is as unstoppable against the vaunted Legion of Boom as he is against everyone else in the league, the Seahawks' D may have finally met their match.