If the Patriots want to live up to the hype this season they need Rob Gronkowski to be Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk’s performance and health are even bigger necessities with the absence of Julian Edelman.
There was a lot of talk following last week’s season opener about Gronk’s subpar performance against the Chiefs.
The hulking tight end only caught two passes for 33 yards (although he nearly made a 20-yard TD reception), and looked sluggish and out of sync with quarterback Tom Brady.
On one hand, it makes sense that Gronk wasn’t completely up to game speed yet, as this was his first meaningful game since last November. But on the other hand, you do have to wonder if the 28-year-old is starting to feel the effects of numerous injuries over the years.
After watching every pass route that Gronkowski ran against the Chiefs, the latter should no longer be a concern.
Rob Gronkowski is fine. He’s healthy. And ran routes like he typically does (until the fourth quarter when he appeared to have run out of gas, which is to be expected in his first few games back from injury).
The Kansas City Chiefs had a perfect game-plan for slowing down Gronk, and they had the perfect player, safety Eric Berry, to be the focal point of that plan.
The Chiefs strategy was simple. They hit Gronkowski as he released into his routes as much as possible, made him run through multiple defenders, and got away with a lot of hand checking downfield.
Basically, the strategy to slow down Gronk for the Chiefs was to literally slow him down. Hence why he looked slow watching the game live.
Eric Berry, who ended up tearing his Achilles in the fourth quarter of this one, deserves a lot of the credit. He was terrific. But you could even see the coaching staff’s finger prints all over Berry’s performance. They lined him up right in Gronk’s face, even when he was playing with his hand in the ground as a traditional tight end, and Berry prevented Gronk at all costs from beating him deep.
Below, I will get into more of the specifics on how the Chiefs showed the other 30 teams how to stop Gronk. The question is do other teams have the players to pull it off?
Let’s start with the very first play of the game on offense for the Pats. This play was emphasized by many as an uncharacteristic miss by Tom Brady on a pass to a wide open Dwayne Allen, which it was.
However, check out Gronkowski on this play, who’s lined up as an inline tight end to Brady’s right. You could argue that four Chiefs defenders are focused on Gronk, and his presence alone results in the wide open Allen.
The linebacker that’s supposed to drop into zone that Allen runs through sees Gronk coming across, and opts to turn inside to help cover him instead of dropping towards his responsibility along the sideline.
You also see the Chiefs strategy right away, as there are multiple defenders in Gronk’s way slowing him down, and making it impossible for Brady to target him.
It’s a mystery to me why any team would allow Gronk to release freely downfield.
By doing so, you make it nearly impossible on whoever is trying to cover him, as it allows Gronk to run freely off the snap, and get up to top speed quickly.
You try covering a 6-6, 265-pound tight end running at full speed.
On both the plays shown above, the Chiefs make a clear emphasis to chip Gronk on his way downfield, opting to use a defensive end to do so on one play, and a linebacker in the red zone play.
The red zone play really stands out as a perfect example of how the Chiefs approached slowing down Gronk. He’s contacted by three different Chiefs throughout the play, including a chip by linebacker Derrick Johnson.
It was obvious that the Chiefs weren’t going to allow Gronk to beat them in this game, especially in the red zone.
The Good and Almost Great
It stinks that Gronk didn’t pull in that touchdown grab because it would have changed the narrative of his night immensely.
The almost-catch got labeled as an indicator that Gronk wasn’t fully himself, as we have seen him complete catches like that 50 times in his career.
However, let’s be honest with ourselves for a second. First, Gronk looks like his normal self both running the route and making the diving attempt at the catch. And second, no other football player on planet earth can make that catch, and it took a review to overturn it.
On the catch that did stand shown above, let me just say this: what a freaking catch.
This is how you know Gronk is still Gronk. He absorbs the hit from the linebacker on his release, and then is still able to accelerate, and put a move on Eric Berry that creates separation at the top of the route. With Berry trailing closely behind, he then makes the catch in traffic for the first down. Oh, by the way, it was 3rd and 10.
Find me another player in the NFL that can go through all of that on one play, and still make the catch. You can’t.
I think there’s a stigma among the media when it comes to mentioning the refs in analysis sometimes. Like its a fanboy thing to do or excuse making.
Let me be clear here: Rob Gronkowski plays football by different rules.
He’s the NFL’s version of Shaq. If refs call the game the same way against Gronk as they do every other receiver there will be a flag on every play. That’s what happens when you move like that at that size. What are other teams supposed to do besides grab on for dear life?
Having said that, there were a number of blatant holding calls on Gronk during this game that simply need to be called. Otherwise, this is how he’ll be played the entire season, with defenders draped all over him, and tugging at him to slow him down. If the refs don’t flag teams for doing it, it’s great strategy, and maybe the only one that will truly stop 87.
The second play shown above, a hold by Eric Berry, is as blatant a no-call as you’ll see in the NFL. It didn’t effect the play, as Brandin Cooks drew a pass interference call for far less egregious contact, but it set the standard for how the refs were going to call the game.
The first play of the section, is less egregious, but a cheeky veteran move by Ron Parker to slow Gronk. It was one of the only times that the Chiefs were in man coverage, and didn’t either have Berry on Gronk, or help over the top.
Gronk has Parker beat down the seam. Gronk knows it. Brady knows it. And Parker knows it. So what does the Chiefs safety do? Subtly grab Gronk’s waist to slow him down.
Gassed at the End
The Patriots use of Gronk in the fourth quarter, and his body language, suggested that the tight end ran out of gas late in the game.
That’s obviously not ideal, but it’s to be expected with Gronk playing his first full game since last November.
Remember, although Gronk suited up in the preseason for the first time in years, he didn’t come close to playing a full game. No matter how much conditioning you do in the offseason none of it will prepare you for an NFL game.
The first play shown above is the true indicator. The situation: 9:11 to go in the 4th quarter, 3rd and 10, 28-27 Chiefs. And what does Gronk do? He stays in to block and is nothing but an afterthought as he releases late into the flat.
Gronk stayed into block on passing plays six times against the Chiefs, and four of those were in the fourth quarter. A clear indicator that he was gassed.
There were a lot of hot takes that came out of this game.
The defense is trash, Gronk and Brady are washed, the Pats offense stinks without Edelman, etc.
It remains to be seen just how good the Pats defense can be with its limitations in the front seven, but we already know doubting Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the football field is a bad idea.
Gronk didn’t play with that typical reckless abandon that we are used to, and he’ll definitely need some time to get his legs back after a long layoff, but based on the film there’s no reason to believe he won’t return to playing like an All-Pro tight end.
He was still a monster out there. A clear matchup nightmare that needed two to three defenders to slow him down.
This wasn’t one of those things where the Chiefs put one guy on Gronk in man coverage, and he got shut down.
Berry was fantastic, as stated earlier, but he had plenty of help, both from teammates, and schematically by the coaching staff.
Other opponents will not have the luxury of an All-Pro safety like Berry, or an intelligent coaching staff that will implement a similar strategy.
It may take some time, but expect Rob Gronkowski to be spiking footballs in the end zone very soon.
Here’s a bonus play for all of you. The safeties reaction in the middle of the field is the key element here.
Ron Parker reacts immediately to Gronk coming across, and screams down from his deep safety spot to double him.
The play shows perfectly just how committed the Chiefs were to stopping Gronk, and why he couldn’t get going in the passing game.