We've looked at how the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski has changed the offense and led to a more successful passing attack. We also know how integral Gronk is to the Patriots red zone offense, with his 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons ranking second in the league, behind only Calvin Johnson's 33 (and to be fair, he's tied with Jimmy Graham).
In fact, Gronk is one of four targets with 30+ touchdowns since the start of the 2011 season, and he's done it in 10 fewer games than any of the other players. Megatron has 33 in 43. Jimmy Graham has 31 in 42. Dez Bryant has 30 in 43. Gronk's pace of 31 touchdowns in 32 games is the best in the league and now that he's back up to speed in the offense, he's had a touchdown in three consecutive games.
The Patriots offense struggled in the red zone without Gronk, ranking 30th in the league in touchdown rate, scoring only 9 touchdowns in their 22 trips to the red zone (41%). In comparison, the Broncos scored touchdowns on 86% of their drives, the Dolphins 71%, and the Bills 50%. The Pats rated better than only the Steelers (38%) and the Jaguars (33%). Yes, the winless Buccaneers had a 45% rate.
Since Gronk's return, New England has shot up the rankings and have been 9th in the league with a 64% touchdown rate. The other teams in the top 10 are contenders like the 49ers (81%), Saints (79%), Seahawks (76%), Broncos (74%), Cowboys (68%), Panthers (68%), Bengals (67%), and Lions (67%). It's nice to see the Patriots in better company.
Without Gronk, the Patriots were throwing a wide range of low quality target attempts. Among those were second round rookie Aaron Dobson (2 catches on 6 attempts, no TDs) and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (5 catches on 10 attempts, 4 TDs) who, while playing admirably, had one of the lowest catch rates in the league.
The Patriots were 1 of 4 to tight end targets, with Matthew Mulligan (1 for 1, 1 TD) having the only success. Behind him was Michael Hoomanawanui (0 for 1), Zach Sudfeld (0 for 1, target was intercepted on an awful throw by Brady), and Nate Solder (0 for 1).
Overall, the catch rate in the red zone was an abysmal 51.5%. Since Gronk came back, the Patriots are up to a 66.67% rate. Gronk has seen 8 targets for 5 completions and 3 touchdowns, making up 44.4% of the targets (up from the 12.1% of targets to the tight end role from before).
And the success goes beyond the passing game. New England went from 9 offensive red zone touchdowns in the first six games to 16 in the past five games. The rushing game has had a spike in red zone scores from 2 to 9. They're even earning a yard more per carry in the red zone- 3.03 vs 2.15.
As Gronkowski and other weapons like Shane Vereen continue to get more integrated into the offense, and as the rookie receivers continue to improve, look for the Patriots offense to continue to develop in the red zone.