The New England Patriots were rounding into form as true Super Bowl contenders ... before Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending injury. Popular opinion suggests such a substantial setback -- losing one of the best position players in football -- could send the Pats' season into a tailspin of sorts.
Well, I'm not rolling with the popular crowd on this front.
Based on the All-22 Coaches Film I've studied, I believe New England is well-equipped to deal with Gronk's absence. Here are four reasons why:
1) The Patriots will continue to play power football.
The loss of several notable pass-catchers during the offseason prompted the Patriots to morph into a power football team at the beginning of the 2013 campaign. New England operated primarily from run-heavy formations with multiple tight ends on the field to create advantages in the run game and force opponents into single-high safety coverage. This allowed Tom Brady to control the tempo and mix up play calls at the line of scrimmage to exploit defensive weaknesses. Although the Patriots' offensive production waned without Gronkowski's blocking and receiving skills, the unit played well enough for New England to get off to a 5-1 start without a key playmaker.
With Gronkowski now out of the lineup for the remainder of the season, I expect the Patriots to feature a strategy built around a power ground game and a vertical, play-action aerial attack. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from earlier in the season, the Patriots routinely ran the ball between the tackles from a variety of formations out of their "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). The versatility of this grouping allowed New England to use conventional two-back formations from the I-formation or employ some of the ace, ace-wing and ace-solo looks that create problems at the point of attack.
In addition, the downhill running styles of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount produced a steady diet of 4- and 5-yard gains that kept the offense on schedule. Of course, this approach is vastly different from the "bombs-away" tactics New England used in the past, but a consistent ground attack eventually will set up big-play opportunities off play-action. Looking back at some of the Patriots' explosive plays from this season, the common denominator has been the utilization of play-action fakes in the backfield. The Pats have cleverly designed a series of vertical passes that mirror the offensive line and backfield movements associated with their favorite runs. As a result, New England sets Brady up for easy home-run opportunities on two-man routes while keeping the franchise QB upright in the pocket with maximum protection at the line of scrimmage.
Below, you'll find an example of the Patriots' deadly play-action game, taken from New England's Week 12 win over the Denver Broncos. In this play, the Pats are aligned in an ace formation, with Julian Edelman set to the right:
On the snap, Brady will execute a play fake in the backfield while Edelman runs a dino post over the middle:
Split end Kenbrell Thompkins is running a deep curl to attract defenders on the front side:
With the entire field available to Edelman, Brady tosses a bomb to his favorite target for a 43-yard gain.
2) Expect Tom Brady to "dink and dunk" from spread formations.
The loss of Gronkowski is clearly a blow to the Patriots' passing game, but the team has frequently employed a "small ball" strategy with Josh McDaniels at the helm. The savvy offensive coordinator routinely will call a series of quick-hitting routes from three- or four-receiver sets to take advantage of the soft-coverage tactics employed by opponents. Although these short routes frequently yield minimal yardage, the high-percentage throws keep Brady in rhythm and stretch the underneath coverage of the defense. This eventually results in big plays when defenders vacate their zones to jump short routes, leaving receivers running free down the field, as evidenced by the video clip above and to the right.
In addition to utilizing a "dink and dunk" passing game to help Brady, the Patriots will spread the field in a variety of empty formations to create simple pre-snap reads. This is a critical part of the Patriots' game plan because it allows the veteran signal-caller to quickly identify potential blitzes and audible to blitz-beaters like bubble screens or stick routes.
3) Shane Vereen will be the X-factor in the game plan.
The Patriots' offensive staff does a great job deploying personnel at various spots in selected formations to create mismatches in the run or pass game. This has been the secret to the unit's success for years, with Kevin Faulk, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead all serving as X-factors at one time or another. With Gronkowski sidelined, I believe New England will use Vereen as the queen on the chessboard.
The third-year pro is ideally suited to fill the role, based on his impressive skills as a change-of-pace back. He is a capable runner on draws and delays and also shines in the passing game as a hybrid receiver from the backfield. Vereen is one of the best route runners I've seen at the position, and his ability to execute the entire route tree makes him nearly impossible to defend in space. As a result, the Patriots have increasingly used him as a primary weapon, with Vereen averaging 15.6 touches per game and 111.8 total yards from scrimmage in five appearances this season. (He missed eight games with a broken wrist.)
I believe Vereen will continue to serve as the team's primary runner in "11" personnel packages (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). He has a knack for finding creases against sub-defenses on inside zone and stretch plays, which makes him challenging to defend with nickel personnel. In the video clip to the right, notice how, while the Patriots direct the run to the nickel corner, Vereen slips inside to take advantage of a crease at the point of attack. Click here to see a clip of Vereen running an inside zone play against a nickel package. These are the kinds of runs Vereen can provide against sub-defenses designed to stop the Patriots' passing game. Given Vereen's effectiveness running inside or outside from one-back formations, defenses have a tough time slowing him down.
In the passing game, Vereen is a matchup nightmare. He capably runs any route from any position on the field. Consequently, defensive coordinators have a tough time deciding whether to cover him with a linebacker or a defensive back in space. If defensive play-callers trot out a sub-package, the Patriots can position Vereen in the backfield to execute one of the aforementioned run plays. If they keep base personnel on the field, New England can align Vereen outside and run a variety of isolation routes.
In the screengrab below, taken from Sunday's comeback win over the Cleveland Browns, Vereen is aligned on the outside of an empty formation. The Browns have a linebacker, Craig Robertson, assigned to guard Vereen in man coverage:
Not surprisingly, Vereen blows past Robertson on a go-route:
The versatile running back catches the ball in stride for a 50-yard gain.
4) Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will become big red-zone targets.
It's hard to replace Gronkowski's production in the passing game, especially in the red zone. The fourth-year pro has scored 43 total touchdowns in his 50-game career. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds with long arms and a huge frame, Gronk is impossible to defend on post-ups in the end zone. Brady has taken advantage of the wide strike zone, repeatedly targeting the big-bodied pass-catcher on seam routes or post-corners against man coverage.
Without Gronk owning space in the middle, Brady will rely on Edelman (5-10) and Amendola (5-11) to run a variety of picks and rub routes on the perimeter. If that concept sounds familiar, it's because Brady used the same approach with Wes Welker for years.
Studying the tape, I noticed that the Patriots already employ a variety of picks and rub plays with the duo. By featuring the top two receivers in the concept, New England typically is assured that one pass-catcher will work free. Let's take a look at what we should expect to see from the Pats' red-zone package.
Prior to the snap, Amendola motions to a stack alignment behind Edelman to create a free release at the line of scrimmage:
Edelman works up the field like he's running a corner before abruptly snapping inside on a dig route:
Edelman leaves the cornerback standing still and snags the ball for a critical two-point conversion.
The next screengrab series comes from later in the same game against the Browns. The Patriots break the huddle in a dubs formation, once again positioning Edelman in the slot and Amendola out wide (for the time being ... ):
Amendola motions to a stack alignment behind Edelman to run the pick route again. This time, the Browns' defenders attempt to switch (the outside defender takes the first receiver to the outside, while the inside defender takes the remaining receiver):
Despite their attempts, the Browns' defenders are still out of position on the play, with Edelman obtaining inside leverage on the cornerback on an in-breaking route:
As a result, Edelman notches six more points on the same play.
And in this final set of images, also from the Browns game, the Patriots break the huddle in a dubs formation, with Amendola and Edelman aligned on the right. Amendola is in the slot, running yo-yo motion (where the receiver starts in motion across the formation, but then returns to his original side):
Prior to the snap, Amendola returns to his original position to run a flat route to the front of the end zone:
Edelman frees Amendola on the flat route by taking a hard inside release on a slant to pick the defender assigned to Amendola:
With the defender unable to get around the pick immediately, Brady quickly hits Amendola for a 1-yard touchdown pass. And this play, of course, completed a miraculous comeback victory for New England.
With the Patriots adept at executing a variety of pick and rub concepts near the goal line, we shouldn't expect the scoring to drop off significantly with Gronkowski out of the lineup.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.