The New England Patriots finally unleashed the two tight end offense that everyone had been waiting for and, boy, it might have exceeded expectations. After playing 2-TE sets on roughly 30% of snaps over the first four weeks, the Patriots doubled it to almost 60% against the Browns.
The results were fantastic. Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett combined for 176 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 receptions and they both added some high level blocking to round out their versatility.
Gronkowski and Bennett “at tight end has been a tough matchup for other teams,” Patriots QB Tom Brady said after the game. “We just have to keep doing it, keep putting pressure on the defense. I think we did a good job with that today.”
Gronkowski and Bennett are enjoying playing on the field together because they take pressure away from one another and make each other better.
“[Bennett is] a great player, great dude and a great teammate to have out there,” Gronkowski said. “You learn a lot from a guy who has about nine years in the league. We've been waiting for this moment since we got together to both get out on the field both healthy. It's great working with each other, and we just have to keep improving every week and keep helping each other out."
"I love playing with Gronk,” Bennett said. “I'm very excited for him. It's pretty dynamic with both of us out there today and he played very well. I expect him to continue to play like that. That's what Gronk is. That's what Gronk does. That's why he's the ‘Gronkinator'."
What makes the Patriots tight end duo so difficult to defend is that they can block and catch on any given play.
Linebackers can’t cover either player one-on-one and defenses have to double-cover Gronkowski. There are only so many defenders to go around, with Bennett’s second touchdown grab a good example:
Gronkowski is isolated on the far side of the field, while Bennett is inline on the nearside. Julian Edelman is in the near slot and Chris Hogan is on the near sideline. D.J. Foster is in the backfield.
The Browns elect to rush six, which means that there are only five players able to drop into coverage. Since the Browns double cover Gronkowski, Foster actually leaks out of the backfield without anyone in coverage.
"Yeah, [the double coverage] was great, that's why it's a team game,” Gronkowski said after the game. “The two defenders come to me and leave Marty in the red zone one-on-one. So it gives other people opportunities to capitalize on them. That's why it's such a great sport to play because it's such a team sport.”
Brady throws a strike to Bennett, who is single covered by a linebacker. This is an easy choice for Brady.
Alternatively, the Browns have to respect the blocking ability of both tight ends, which makes the threat of the play action so much more dangerous. Here’s how it works on Bennett’s third touchdown of the day.
The Patriots set up with two tight ends on the right side of the formation and block as if LeGarrette Blount is going to receive the hand off and run around the end. This causes the Browns linebackers and defensive backs to step up to the line of scrimmage.
Bennett and Gronkowski detach from the line and run down the field and away from the momentum of the Browns defenders. Both tight ends are wide open, but Bennett was more open on the sideline, away from the deep safety.
When the Patriots can hit these plays, it prevents the linebackers from crashing against the run and it makes the game a lot easier for Blount to produce.
“It was tough,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said about facing the two tight ends. “Obviously, those guys made a lot of plays. The match-up looked like it did. It wasn't as good on our side.”
The Browns are very young on defense so these opportunities might not present themselves against more veteran squads, but Gronkowski and Bennett exceeded all expectations in their first game where both were close to healthy.