New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a pass on quarterback Tom Brady's first attempt of the day. The completion went for 10 yards and a first down. Gronkowski didn't catch another pass until his second and final reception in the 4th quarter, which went for 27 yards.
That was it for Gronkowski, who was unable to be a consistent part of the Patriots passing attack. I counted 8 snaps where he stayed in to block out of 44 chances (including penalties).
Holding Gronkowski to 37 yards on two receptions is no easy feat. How did the Bills do it? Can other teams copy their strategy?
The Bills used two separate strategies to try and disrupt Gronkowski, implementing a different execution for each half.
The Bills tried to confuse Tom Brady as much as possible with 16 different coverage combinations on 21 different routes. They used man coverage with their cornerbacks when Gronkowski aligned on the outside and varied their man support when the tight end was in the slot or inline.
Rex Ryan threw in zone looks, they dropped defensive tackle Corbin Bryant into the passing lane, they paired up all of their different safeties with all of their different linebackers, and they used cornerback Stephon Gilmore in single coverage when Gronkowski lined up on the left sideline.
The vast majority of the Bills hidden rushers came from the middle of the right side, which meant that the Bills were able to flood the left side of the field to take away the passing lanes to Gronkowski. The Patriots tried to adjust in the second half by using Gronkowski on the right sideline to open up passing opportunities if Rex tried to blitz from the right side again.
After a greatly complicated first half, the Bills really simplified their looks in the second half. Maybe the first half frustration led Brady to stop looking Gronkowski's way on a consistent basis, and maybe the loss of Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson greatly shifted the Patriots passing outlook, and maybe (definitely) the offensive line's inability to handle the Bills disguised pressure led to hurried and inaccurate passes.
The Bills put Gilmore on Gronkowski when he aligned on the left sideline, Darby when Gronkowski was on the right sideline, and they paired a linebacker underneath with a strong safety over the top when he was in the slot. The disguises weren't as intricate as the first half; the Patriots were playing with both hands tied behind their back due to injuries so the Bills could really just focus on Gronkowski as the Patriots only weapon.
Can teams copy this blueprint?
Technically yes, especially with every other threat on offense sidelined with an injury. If Danny Amendola is active and if the Patriots finally take the training wheels off of James White, then the Patriots offense can open up again.
However, the main caveat is that the Rex Ryan defense is constructed to give the Patriots offense trouble. They disguise their presnap looks more than anyone else, they bring in secret pressure more than anyone else, they usually have the depth in the secondary to match up a viable cornerback against Gronkowski.
The only reason the Bills defense worked was their first half destruction of Brady's trust in his offensive line and the injuries across the board to the Patriots offense. This should be a concern against the Broncos and their pass rush, especially if Amendola can't play, but few other teams have the ability to match-up or have defenses that are so rooted in the disguised pressure.
How can the Patriots adjust?
I'm not sure if Rob Gronkowski has really had consistent success when aligned outside against a cornerback. Rookie cornerback Byron Jones of the Cowboys did a pretty good job and other teams have been trying the same strategy. On the flip side, teams are really devoting multiple defenders when Gronkowski is in the middle of the field and it's hard to succeed against consistent double-teams.
One possible solution would be to involve Gronkowski in the quick passing game out of the slot or inline that was featured against the Jets and allow the tight end to pick up yards after the catch. This would be a high impact option, though, and would carry all of the corresponding risks. This is still more productive than using him as, effectively, a decoy on the outside.
Buffalo did a great job of dictating how Brady perceived pressure and disrupting the passing game. With all of the injuries on offense, it's up to Josh McDaniels to come up with an adjustment to improve the Patriots ability to move the ball down the field.