Third down. Ten or more yards to go. It isn’t ideal, nor is it uncommon.
The New England Patriots’ offense faced that situation 59 times during the 2017 regular season. And a pass play was called on all but eight of them.
Which, in the downtime of the NFL calendar, leads us down the Pro Football Reference rabbit hole.
Rob Gronkowski’s success there brings reason for it.
Tom Brady attempted 47 passes on third-and-10 or longer last campaign and was sacked twice. Brian Hoyer stepped in behind center to attempt one. The combined results were 27 completions for 444 yards, two interceptions, two touchdowns and a total of 20 first downs for New England.
It’s a stat line that would’ve looked a lot different if not for a five-time All-Pro tight end running down the seams.
Gronkowski was targeted 10 times on third-and-10-plus in 2017.
And while the first occasion netted an incompletion and so did the last, Gronkowski caught all eight that transpired in between. It marked a team-high by year’s end. And it saw him amass 135 yards while moving the chains for seven first downs with one touchdown in the process.
GRONKOWSKI’S LOG ON THIRD-AND-10 OR LONGER
- Sept. 7 vs. Chiefs – 9:53 in first quarter, third-and-11: incomplete
- Sept. 7 vs. Chiefs – 10:44 in second quarter, third-and-10: 16 yards
- Sept. 24 vs. Texans – 2:23 in third quarter, third-and-21: eight yards
- Sept. 24 vs. Texans – 2:00 in fourth quarter, third-and-10: 15 yards
- Oct. 15 vs. Jets – 11:30 in third quarter, third-and-11: 33 yards, touchdown
- Oct. 22 vs. Falcons – 13:20 in third quarter, third-and-11: 11 yards
- Nov. 19 vs. Raiders – 7:10 in second quarter, third-and-11: 14 yards
- Dec. 3 vs. Bills – 13:08 in third, third-and-11: 19 yards
- Dec. 3 vs. Bills – 6:55 in fourth, third-and-10: 19 yards
- Dec. 17 vs. Steelers – 9:13 in second, third-and-10: incomplete
Gronkowski’s completion rate of 80 percent and conversion rate of 70 percent made those third-and-very-long situations not seem so long. Though while he made up the majority of New England’s receiving production when it came to that department, he wasn’t the most-frequently targeted.
Current Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who drew 11 passes and caught three for 100 yards, was. With pass-interference-inducing deep speed and without Julian Edelman on the depth chart, Cooks’ volume made sense.
Yet on third-and-double-digits, Gronkowski made himself out to be what defensive coordinators already knew – a 6-foot-6, 265-pound problem.
PATRIOTS’ THIRD-AND-10-PLUS TARGETS
- Brandin Cooks: 3-of-11 for 100 yards, four first downs
- Rob Gronkowski: 8-of-10 for 135 yards, seven first downs, touchdown
- Danny Amendola: 4-of-8 for 64 yards, two first downs
- Chris Hogan: 3-of-8 for 42 yards, three first downs
- James White: 5-of-6 for 74 yards, three first downs
- Rex Burkhead: 2-of-2 for 12 yards
- Dion Lewis: 1-of-1 for 12 yards, one first down, touchdown
- Phillip Dorsett: 1-of-1 for five yards
- Brandon Bolden: 0-of-1
It was a different case on third-and-10 or longer for Gronkowski in 2016.
No. 87 caught zero passes under those circumstances that campaign. The ball was sent his way just twice when the offense faced such a climb over the course of eight appearances before landing on injured reserve to undergo back surgery.
But in 2017, Gronkowski turned a total of 10 passes into first downs in third-and-7-plus situations, which ranked second in the league behind only the Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen. And when pulling from all third-down scenarios, Gronkowski finished having turned 16 of his 18 receptions into chain-movers.
He had 305 third-down receiving yards in all, per PFR, and made three trips to the end zone.
That past production in a difficult spot may not mean much in early July. Though when the Patriots reconvene on the Gillette Stadium backfields and rehearse all downs and distances, it will mean something.