Coming off a Super Bowl loss, two players dominated the offseason headlines in New England: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. When the rumors and speculation faded away and the season finally began, the duo left little doubt about its commitment to the 2018 New England Patriots. Brady and Gronkowski carved up the team’s week one opponent, the Houston Texans, to the tune of seven pass connections for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Since that day in early September, however, the prolific duo has been comparatively quiet. Gronkowski, who missed three games along the way due to ankle and back injuries, still caught 22 passes for 325 yards but he did not find the end zone even once — until last Sunday’s game against the New York Jets that is: late in the first quarter, Gronkowski caught his first touchdown since opening day and it was a classic Brady-to-Gronk score.
Let’s take a look at the film to further analyze the touchdown.
3-12-NYJ 34 (1:18) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to R.Gronkowski for 34 yards, TOUCHDOWN [H.Anderson].
After the Jets went up 7-0 late in the first quarter, the Patriots offense responded by quickly driving down the field. After back-to-back big plays to wide receivers Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan, however, the drive appeared to stall once it reached New York’s half of the field. Following an incompletion intended for Julian Edelman on 3rd and 2, the Patriots would have faced a decision whether or not to go for it on fourth down if the Jets had not elected to accept an offensive pass interference call on the play.
Accepting the penalty essentially gave New England an additional play but moved the team back 10 yards to the Jets’ 34 — and on the edge of field goal range. The Patriots approached the second third down attempt with their top 11-personnel group aligned in a 3x1 shotgun formation:
New England has two wide receivers — Chris Hogan (#15) and Julian Edelman (#11) — lined up on the left side of the formation, with tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87) outside of the left tackle in a two-point stance. On the other side, wide receiver Josh Gordon (#10) serves as the lone receiving target after running back James White (#28) motions into the backfield to start the play to the right side of quarterback Tom Brady (#12).
The Jets defense approaches the down in a two-deep safety look with the defensive backs playing off-man. New York is in a cover 2 zone defense but adds a little wrinkle to it: the deep safety on the strong side of the formation — Jamal Adams (#33) — is actually responsible for one of the underneath zones. This, in turn, leaves outside cornerback Morris Claiborne (#21) as the second player with deep-field responsibilities.
After the snap, Claiborne drops deep while Adams comes up the field. This in combination with Gordon a potential deep threat on the other side of the field — one luring ex-Patriot Darryl Roberts (#27) more towards the boundary — allows Gronkowski to attack the defense up the seam. Both the tight end and his quarterback read the defense the same way, which allows for the 34-yard scoring connection:
What also helps the play develop is Brady’s anticipation and internal clock. The Jets rush four defenders at the snap, which gives New England a numbers advantage: five offensive linemen plus White, who chips a defender before releasing into his route. But while the edge rushers are easily contained by tackles Trent Brown (#77) and Marcus Cannon (#61), the interior allows two players to get through the line.
First, right guard Shaq Mason (#69) is unable to hold his block against defensive tackle Henry Anderson (#96) long enough. Almost simultaneously, center David Andrews (#60) fails to slow down stunting defender Leonard Williams (#92). Both Jets are able to reach the quarterback — but by the time they take him down, the pass is already gone as Brady waited until the last possible second to unleash the deep ball:
Despite two defenders in his face, the 41-year old quarterback places the pass perfectly to where only his intended target is able to get it. Gronkowski, who simply outruns middle linebacker Avery Williamson (#54) on his way down the field, catches the football away from his body and holds onto it even as Claiborne tries to knock it loose:
All in all, the play is a vintage Brady-to-Gronkowski score. The quarterback shows terrific anticipation, arm strength and accuracy in placing the football perfectly. Meanwhile, the tight end is able to win his route and subsequently the contested catch. On top of all that, both players display a great understanding of the defense — and the chemistry that made them one of the NFL’s most prolific duos.
If this play is a sign of the potential things still to come this season, the rest of the NFL needs to be on high alert.