When I wrote CoachSpeak last season, I followed a general rule: When the Detroit Lions won, I'd look back and bask in the valiant efforts that led to victory. When the Lions lost, I'd deny the previous game took place and turn my eyes to the following week's opponent. The title of this series may have changed from last season, but my inability to cope with disappointment has not, so on to New England we go.
As Sean Yuille noted earlier in the week, the New England Patriots are on a bit of a roll lately. A large reason for the Patriots' surge to the top of the AFC standings is the dramatic improvement of the team's passing attack, which is now ranked first overall in DVOA, per Football Outsiders. And, a large part of that surge is the continued health and dominance of All-Bro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Trying to figure out tendencies in the Patriots offense presents a challenge. Certain teams tend to rely on schemes and routes that play to their obvious strengths; the Patriots do not. Bill Belichick seems to revel in defying expectations. That's why he does things like take his top-ranked passing attack into Indianapolis and run Jonas Gray 38 times behind a "jumbo" package.
If there's one constant with Gronkowski, it's that he is an unholy terror with the ball in his hands. Fortunately, smarter and better analysts have already broken down ways to get him on the ground. The ways in which the Patriots get him the ball vary from game to game. However, by observing some of the ways Gronkowski has been used to attack opposing defenses, as well as some ways opposing tight ends have been used against the Lions, I think we can gain a glimmer of what to expect this Sunday.
As Jim Caldwell stated in his comments on Wednesday, Gronkowski does a ton of damage in the middle of the field off of play-action. That was especially true in the Patriots' victory over the Denver Broncos a few weeks back.
One of the Patriots' most successful plays to Gronkowski in that game came off a play-action trap fake. At the snap, the Patriots' offensive linemen block the wide trap, with the backside guard pulling to kick out the outside linebacker lined up over Gronkowski, who releases up the seam. Corey Nelson (No. 52) is the unfortunate victim of this play.
Nelson reads run all the way and gets sucked up into the line, giving Gronkowski nothing but open real estate in front of him. Tom Brady delivers an easy pass into his tight end's hands for 20 yards up the seam.
The Patriots will also run Gronkowski on routes away from the play to get him in space. Here, they run play-action off an outside zone look, with Gronkowski squaring up to block before leaking out and dragging back across the formation.
With the entire play hitting right and the backside wide receiver getting vertical to clear the cornerback, Brady once again has his favorite target with nothing but room in front of him, picking up yet another easy double-digit gain.
Though the Patriots obviously love employing play-action to get Gronkowski the rock, they're also content to simply split him out wide and match him up one-on-one against smaller defensive backs who are overmatched trying to outfight the big lug once the ball is in the air.
Gronkowski simply runs a 15-yard curl on the outside against Sergio Brown on this play. There's no deception or misdirection involved; Brady times the throw correctly and puts it up for his tight end, and Gronkowski does the rest. Brown knows better than anyone that Gronk owns this club.
These plays illustrate only a slim portion of Gronkowski's use all over the field, but we're looking at them because they bear similarities to how other teams have used their tight ends against the Lions this season. I don't think Teryl Austin is bold enough to put a defensive end in single coverage on Gronkowski at the goal line, and I say this as someone who regularly (and gleefully) makes a point to talk about Ziggy Ansah in coverage. (To be fair, I suppose Ansah's basketball background would at least make him better qualified for the task than Shea McClellin.)
I came into this week expecting to talk about DeAndre Levy's ability to shut down opposing tight ends with the assistance of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. Unfortunately, they aren't going to come up much in this discussion. I probably should have expected that tight ends have had the most success against the Lions when opposing teams do their best to stay away from Levy and the safeties. I expect that trend to continue. Given how stout the Lions' front four is against the run, the linebackers don't often sell hard on the run, which makes those play-action seam routes harder for opposing offenses to execute. If Gronkowski and the Patriots have success through the air, I don't expect it to come there.
However, while the Lions don't give up much to tight ends in the middle of the field, they have allowed opposing tight ends some success outside the numbers. No matchup from this season shows this more clearly than Greg Olsen's game against the Lions in Week 2.
Like the Patriots with Gronkowski, the Carolina Panthers were happy to go to Olsen when he was matched up against the Lions' cornerbacks on the outside. Darius Slay was the victim of a couple plays that contributed to Olsen's six catches and 72 yards.
Olsen is lined up as the standup tight end on the right side of the formation, making him Slay's responsibility in coverage. As in the similar play by the Patriots, the Panthers' other receiving options are all lined up opposite the tight end, drawing the majority of defensive attention and leaving Olsen isolated on Slay. Olsen is more of a fluid route runner than Gronkowski, though decidedly less powerful. Rather than outmuscling Slay for a curl on the sideline, Olsen gets separation by running a 10-yard out.
Once Slay turns his hips to run downfield with Olsen, the tight end cuts toward the sideline and Cam Newton delivers the ball for 13 yards. The Panthers also ran Olsen into the flats when facing softer coverage at the snap and trusted him to break tackles with the ball in his hands.
When he wasn't beating Slay, Olsen enjoyed success against the lesser Lions linebackers.
This is a similar play-action look to the second one shown above by the Patriots. With both guards pulling right at the snap, the linebackers read run and flow to the ball. Olsen, meanwhile, leaks back across the formation with about six steps on Tahir Whitehead.
Again, like Brady, Newton delivers an easy ball back across the formation, which Olsen takes upfield for 20 yards.
The Lions are currently ranked first in defensive DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers and ninth against tight ends. I don't really know how to classify Rob Gronkowski according to those categories. He is easily the best tight end the Lions will have faced this year, and he's easily the best receiver on the Patriots. Gronkowski may not have a huge day against the Lions, but he'll get his touches. If the Patriots scheme to put him on weaker defenders -- and I have no conceivable reason to bet against it -- Slay, Rashean Mathis and whoever ends up playing opposite Levy will have their work cut out for them in minimizing the damage of those touches.