The New England Patriots have arguably the NFL’s most dynamic tight end duo in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. Therefore, it is no surprise to see opposing defenses key in on the duo to try to slow the Patriots’ offensive machine down. However, that is easier said than done – and the Pittsburgh Steelers found that out on Sunday.
In the first half, the team actually did a solid job of containing them (which, in turn, opened up lanes for the running game and the underneath passing attack). Gronkowski and Bennett saw a combined two targets in the first two two quarters, catching one pass for 13 yards (Gronkowski).
On the first series of the second half, Bennett added a 5-yard catch to the tight ends’ output before this happened one possession later:
3-7-PIT 36 (6:27) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to R.Gronkowski for 36 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Despite the Steelers concentrated effort of slowing down New England’s tight ends, the best one in the game was able to catch a 36-yard touchdown on them.
The play started with the Patriots lining up with 11-personnel on the field: wide receivers Julian Edelman (#11) and Danny Amendola (#80) and Rob Gronkowski (#87) aligned on the formation’s left, while Chris Hogan (#15) was the lone weak side receiver. Running back James White (#28) was the fifth skill-position player on the field:
The Steelers were in a two-deep zone coverage (cover 2), and New England ran a perfect play to attack one of the coverage’s general weaknesses: the middle of the field. They were able to do that due to the patterns run on both sides of the formation.
On the weak side, Hogan went vertical, forcing safety Mike Mitchell (#23) to move towards him. This, in turn, opened the middle parts of the field and left them vulnerable for what was about to come:
On the strong side, Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski also started on vertical routes, running parallel each other. This forced the defensive backs on this side of the field to retreat. When Edelman started to break inwards on the 30-yard line, however, cornerback Artie Burns (#25) had to start moving up given the situation (3rd and 7):
Burns moving towards Edelman opened up the deep left half of the field – exactly the zone Amendola was attacking. Burns, however, re-set his feet once Tom Brady (#12) released the ball but still had to turn around to follow Amendola on a potential corner-route. This led strong side safety Sean Davis (#28) to move to the outside and expose the seam route.
Gronkowski, in the meantime, had simply run by his man: Strong safety Robert Golden (#21) turned his hips too late to not expose himself for a potential in- or out-route at the down marker. While he played to prevent the first down, Gronkowski went for the score.
Brady, whose offensive line had given him enough space and time to allow him to properly step into the throw, delivered a perfect pass to where only his big tight end could catch it. While the Steelers had defended Gronkowski (and Bennett) well up to this point, New England’s route concept forced the Steelers into making a critical mistake in their zone alignments as both safeties slid to the outside.
Therefore, the Patriots were able to turn a 3rd and 7 into a touchdown and a 1-point lead into a 7-point lead.