Big-play breakdown: Gronkowski causing goal-line headaches


You could almost set your watch to it.

Throughout Patriots training camp, while nearly every one of their teammates convened on an adjacent field for special teams work, Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler and Tom Brady could be found working out together on a corner of the practice fields all their own.

At the goal line, the pair of tight ends honed their route-running while Brady floated passes up high for them to snatch.

Through two games this season, it's clear that the extra work has paid dividends. The trio has already combined for three goal-line touchdowns, and the latest, a two-yard touchdown for Gronkowski, gave the Patriots a 21-7 lead over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday.

It was a play that not only highlighted the stress -- physical and emotional -- that Gronkowski causes opposing defenses, but it also put on display how varied the Patriots offensive attack can be even out of the same offensive formation.

Let's take a closer look.

The Patriots came to the line of scrimmage early in the second quarter with a heavy four-tight end set and 250-pound back LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. Michael Hoomanawanui, lined up next to Michael Williams on the right side was immediately motioned out wide to the right by Brady. Moments later, Brady signaled to Gronkowski and Chandler to reset as receivers on the left side of the formation. Chandler was initially in the backfield as a fullback. 

As soon as Gronkowski and Chandler motioned, Bills corner Stephon Gilmore and safety Duke Williams (circled) followed. The two Bills defensive backs were collectively outweighed by over 100 pounds when compared to the Patriots tight ends across from them, and running at them with Blount might have been an option. But Brady liked the mismatch they presented in the passing game, and he took advantage.

Part of the reason the Patriots were able to defeat the Bills coverage was that coach Rex Ryan's secondary wasn't sure what it was looking at. As soon as Chandler and Gronkowski took their spots split out wide, Gilmore, Williams and linebacker Nigel Bradham yelled and gestured at each other continuously right up to the Patriots snap.

They never figured out a plan.

Gilmore trailed Gronkowski and looked for help to the inside, Bradham stuck with Chandler in the slot, and Williams covered . . . no one. It wasn't until Gronkowski was behind Williams that the safety realized where he should have been. 

The play worked so well, and the Bills were so confused, that the Patriots tried something similar later in the game. They tried it on two consecutive plays, no less. 

In the third quarter, the Patriots used a similar heavy set with four tight ends from the three-yard line. Instead of Chandler serving as the fullback, Williams was in the backfield in front of Blount.

Williams eventually motioned to his spot on the right side of the offensive line, and instead of Chandler lining up in the slot next to Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui took that role. Chandler jogged wide to the right, and found himself alone with Bills safety Aaron Williams. 

This time, the Bills figured out what to do with Gronkowski. Gilmore and Duke Williams combined to bracket him, while Hoomanawanui ran a short out-route to the front corner of the end zone. Brady didn't even look their way. He took a long, lunging one-step drop and fired to Chandler, who had seven inches on Aaron Williams. The pass sailed a little high and behind its intended target, deflecting off of Chandler's hands and falling incomplete. 

The Patriots ran the exact same formation, with the exact same motion, on the very next play.

Instead of running a slant this time, Chandler faded to the back corner of the end zone. Again, he had a chance to score, but Williams got his arm wedged between Chandler's body and the ball and pried it loose. Stephen Gostkowski came on for a chip-shot field goal on fourth down.

It wasn't the result the Patriots wanted, but it was the look they wanted. Even after the Bills figured out what they were doing on the defensive end, it required a missed connection on the Patriots end and a very good one-on-one play by Aaron Williams to ensure that the Patriots didn't score a second time out of that heavy set.

"I’m not sure exactly what happened on their end" during the Gronkowski touchdown, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call this week. "It looked like they were trying to go three-on-two over there to the slot side and they didn’t get it, and Rob got inside. The rest of the game they did go three-on-two on that.

"It’s probably what they were trying to do on [Gronkowski's touchdown], but they did go three-on-two, and we ended up a couple times going back to the other side to Scott Chandler, where the one-on-one matchup was. But we unfortunately didn’t hit it. But they went three-on-two on those plays as well over to the slot side. So, I think that’s what they were trying to do, but Rob got inside on it and Tom [Brady] hit him. It was a pretty easy touchdown. That’s what it looked like to me."

What was surprising about the Bills confusion leading up to Gronkowski's score was that they had seen similar plays on tape during the week before. They couldn't have missed them. The Patriots scored twice against the Steelers with the same look. 

The first time the Patriots used four tight ends on the goal line against the Steelers -- with Brandon Bolden in the backfield in place of the suspended LeGarrette Blount -- Gronkowski and Chandler combined for a picture-perfect rub route that freed up Chandler. Gronkowski ran a slant from the outside, taking his defender with him, and creating traffic that linebacker Lawrence Timmons couldn't fight through. When the dust settled, Chandler had his first catch and first touchdown as a member of the Patriots. 

Later in the game, the Patriots went to the well again. 

Using the exact same setup as the one they used the quarter before, the Patriots used a wrinkle that played perfectly off of what they had shown previously. This time, instead of running a slant to clog the goal line and fee up Chandler underneath, Gronkowski faked the slant with a subtle move to the inside and then scrambled for the pylon in the back corner of the end zone.

Brady's pass was perfect and so were the Patriots when trying to convert in the red zone with their heavy -- but versatile -- four-tight-end grouping.  

"As a coach, you're as flexible as your players allow you to be, and our players work very hard mentally to be able to execute whatever it is we feel like we need to do to try to attack the defense that we're playing," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said in a conference call on Tuesday. "And then we try to utilize each player's strength the best that we can. Some guys give us some flexibility in terms of multiplicity; they can play multiple spots on the field, or they can align in different spots on the field. And then some guys are a little more of a one-position type of a player. But . . . you don't play the game one way or the other all the time anyway.

"There are definitely some areas of the field or some times in the games, depending on the opponent, [where] you try to do some different things with those people. And then there are plenty of times where they line up in their normal locations and you just try to play sound football as best you can on each snap. So it all helps. It all works in there some way during the course of the year. [We] certainly will have to figure out what the best thing is to do this week against Jacksonville because this week's challenge is significant and different, and . . . we've got a lot to learn in a short period of time. And we'll see how we can try to attack this group this week."

If the Patriots have the opportunity to use their two behemoth tight ends again at the goal line against the Jaguars in Week 3, it will be interesting to see how they're deployed. McDaniels has already shown that Gronkowski can be successful as a wide receiver running a slant, a fade or a seven-yard in-cut -- especially when paired with Chandler.

But will they continue to run those tried-and-true routes? Or will they build off of the ones they've shown, and use Jacksonville's film study against them?

Belichick explained earlier this week that figuring out ways to win that chess match -- you know that they know that you know what they know -- is a continuous challenge. 

"They know what you’ve done," Belichick said. "If they don’t stop it, maybe you go to it. But if they do stop it, then you need to have another option somewhere. Once you can hit multiple options on the same type of thing, then you’ve really got the defense in a tough spot. If you can only do one thing, then any good defense is going to take that away as soon they see what you’re trying to do.

"You’ve got to be able to have some type of complementary play to go with it or some complementary play that takes a coverage matchup [where] if they take away one guy, that you have somewhere else to throw the ball."

Evidently, the Patriots play book already has several options off of the same goal-line formation. And given the versatility of the two tight ends who make it work, the list could be growing.


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