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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Rob Gronkowski is worth 5 points of offense, defensive yards after the catch theory

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The Patriots All Pro tight end changes the entire offensive production.

1. New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski is expected to play against the New York Jets after being a gametime decision. Gronkowski suffered a chest injury and internal bleeding after a serious hit against the Seattle Seahawks. Gronkowski changes the entire Patriots offense.

If you want a simple explanation for why the Patriots offense looked fairly listless for the second and third quarters against the San Francisco 49ers, look no further:

TOM BRADY SPLITS
Gronk is: ACTIVE OUT
CMP 2321 448
ATT 3545 781
CMP% 65.5% 57.4%
YDS 27776 5172
YPA 7.84 6.62
TD 215 32
TD% 6.06% 4.10%
INT 50 15
INT% 1.41% 1.92%
Rating 103.6 83.1
Points 31.5/td> 26.5
Win Pct 0.789 0.650

This table shows the passing statistics of QB Tom Brady with and without Gronkowski on the field, dating back to the tight end’s rookie season in 2010. A passer rating of 103.6 would rank 5th in the NFL this season, just behind Saints QB Drew Brees (106.4). A passer rating of 83.1 would rank 27th, barely ahead of Jaguars QB Blake Bortles (80.0) and Bears QB Jay Cutler (78.1)

Gronkowski is that important to the offense.

2. That said, don’t expect Gronkowski to play all of the snaps this week. The Patriots know that the tight end’s health and availability for the playoffs is far more important than one regular season game. Look for TE Martellus Bennett to play a primary role and for Gronkowski to have a lesser status, in a similar way to how the two were utilized in week 4 against the Buffalo Bills.

Last year, Gronkowski collected 15 receptions for 194 yards and a touchdown in two games against the Jets.

The Jets have only faced two “elite” tight ends this year (unless you seriously want to consider Browns TE Gary Barnidge as “elite”), and Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham and Chiefs TE Travis Kelce both ate against the defense. Graham reeled in 6 catches for 113 yards, while Kelce collected 6 receptions of his own for 89 yards and a touchdown.

The Patriots are going to have an active tight end in the passing game again this year.

3. Speaking of players that should be productive, look for RB James White and RB Dion Lewis to be major parts of the offensive game plan as the Patriots will try to avoid the three-headed Jets monster of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams on the defensive line.

The Jets defensive front ranks 2nd in the NFL against the run by DVOA, but 30th against the pass. Think of the Jets like a more extreme version of the Patriots defense in how they are capable against the run, but tight ends and running backs can exploit matchups in the passing game.

Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell posted 154 yards from scrimmage in week 5, including 88 receiving yards. Cardinals RB David Johnson recorded 138 yards from scrimmage in week 6. Browns RB Duke Johnson had 116 yards from scrimmage in week 8, including 87 receiving yards. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi added 130 yards in week 9.

This is a defense that can be exploited by running backs, especially as receivers out of the backfield. The Patriots recognize this and have played receiving backs (Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, James White) over rushing backs (LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray) during the past two seasons.

The Patriots like to have a running back on the field on every offensive snap, and have used receiving backs 80.1% of the time (189 of 236 offensive snaps) in four games against the Jets over 2014-15. So while we won’t know the usage rate of White or Lewis, it’s pretty clear that they will be prioritized over RB LeGarrette Blount.

4. Also, Dion Lewis didn’t play the Jets last season. He missed the first game against the Jets with an abdomen injury and he was on the injured reserve for the second game. He’s only faced the Jets once in his career- back in 2011 as a rookie with the Eagles.

And as electric as Lewis was to start the 2015 season, Lewis has only exceeded 15 touches (carries + catches) once in a Patriots uniform- the 2015 season opener against the Steelers when he had 19 touches. Lewis is clearly a talented player, but he won’t be a 25+ touch player like Bell or Johnson, but he should see between 10-15 touches every week that he is healthy.

5. ESPN’s Mike Reiss noted that the Patriots rank 1st in the NFL in picking up yards after the catch (YAC) on offense, averaging 7.1 YAC per completion. He also noted that New England ranks 1st in the NFL in defending YAC on defense, allowing an average of just 3.95 YAC.

James White ranks 4th in the NFL, and 3rd for running backs, with 379 YAC. Martellus Bennett ranks 11th in the NFL, and 1st for tight ends, with 331 YAC. WR Julian Edelman (266 YAC) and Rob Gronkowski (234 YAC) both rank in the top 50.

I think the defensive YAC is a testament to quality tackling by the players, but I wonder if this reveals anything about the scheme and the low interception numbers. Are the players focusing so much on stopping players after the catch that they’re not attacking the football in the air?

The Patriots have recorded more than 80 passes defended in each season since 2012, according to Pro Football Reference. This year, the Patriots are on pace for just 70, the lowest since the disastrous 2011 defense (62 passes defended). The 5 interceptions through 10 games is also tied for the fewest in the Bill Belichick era (2005).

But while the Patriots are defending passes at an incredibly low rate, they’re allowing the fewest yards after the catch of the past decade. Last year, the Patriots allowed 4.76 YAC per completion, and in 2014 it was a whopping 5.78 YAC per completion.

Elite secondaries are likely more able to both defend the pass and prevent yards after the catch (see: 2007 Patriots, 2015 Patriots), but I wonder if the Patriots did a study on a possible inverse relationship between attacking the ball and stopping big plays for average secondaries- and if the coaching staff decided the team was better suited to forcing extending drives instead of forcing interceptions.