With 13 touchdown catches, Rob Gronkowski is one away from the record for most by a tight end in a single season. (AP)
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a play or performance from Sunday that stood out above the rest.
There are very few guarantees in the NFL, so speculating about what Rob Gronkowski can accomplish as his career moves forward might be a shallow endeavor. Still, what he's done so far, in less than two years in the league, is nothing short of remarkable.
Gronkowski, with 13 receiving touchdowns this season (in addition to Sunday's "rushing" TD on a lateral), has tied the single-season record for most touchdowns by a tight end in a season. He has five games left to break that mark, and considering he has scored in five straight outings, it seems like a safe bet.
The Patriots' 22-year-old tight end also has 23 career touchdowns in just 28 career games. If he were to maintain that pace, he'd be in the top 10 all-time for TD catches by his eighth year, surpassing players like Andre Reed, Mark Clayton, Fred Biletnikoff and Isaac Bruce.
How has he made this big of an impact this quickly?
The short answer is that he's a unique, dynamic player at the tight end position. Not only does he possess the lethal size-speed combo that has made tight ends like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez so deadly, but also the way the Patriots utilize him within their offense is different from what any other team does.
A closer look, starting with Gronkowski's TD catch vs. Philadelphia in Week 12:
On this 2nd-and-19 from the Philadelphia 24, Gronkowski lines up as a wide receiver would, part of a five-option set for Tom Brady. This isn't unusual for the league's more-skilled tight ends -- this setup clearly establishes Gronkowski as a pass-catching threat here and helps spread the defense.
But the problem for the Eagles, and every other team trying to cover Gronkowski in this situation, is that he's a matchup nightmare -- too fast for a linebacker to stay with, too big to drop a corner or undersized safety on him.
On this play, the Eagles try to contain him with linebacker Brian Rolle, who's giving up eight inches and nearly 40 pounds to Gronkowski ... and still isn't fast enough. Gronkowski blows by him, shields the safety and hauls in the touchdown catch.
Fast-forward to Sunday's Patriots win over the Colts. Gronkowski found the end zone three times -- two through the air, one on that aforementioned lateral.
Here's how the Patriots lined up on his first TD catch of the day. It's a traditional I-formation, though BenJarvus Green-Ellis (lined up directly behind Brady) will go in motion before the snap.
Gronkowski immediately releases as a receiver on the play and heads up the seam to the end zone. When Brady first looks his way, he's surrounded by three Colts defenders.
What happens next is a combination of the emerging Brady-Gronkowski combo having trust in each other, and the Colts botching their defensive assignments.
Gronkowski splits the two underneath coverage defenders, then drifts into an open space at the goal line. Brady, who looks for Gronkowski as a No. 1 more often than not in the red zone, sees the opening and fires a strike to his tight end.
Gronkowski's back out wide for his second score of the day, though even this is a different look than what New England showed Philadelphia prior to Gronkowski's Week 12 touchdown:
Again, there are five "receivers" in the formation, but Gronkowski lines up next to Aaron Hernandez (No. 81, to Gronkowski's left), giving the Patriots two tight ends on the right side of the field.
Why is this so difficult for a defense? Well, with Hernandez and Gronkowski both able to stretch the field, it leaves the opposition with a conundrum -- do you roll your coverage to the two tight ends, thereby possibly exposing the entire left side of the field? On this play, that would be mean trying to cover Deion Branch and Julian Edelman with no deep help.
Or do you leave your approach as is, thereby putting Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker up against three defenders and a roaming deep safety?
The Colts try to play this straight up. Hernandez runs a five-yard curl and draws the eyes of two defenders, while Gronkowski slips upfield for another wide open TD.
And in case the Colts' defenders weren't ready to slam their heads into the goal posts at that point, the Patriots show yet another formation and use for Gronkowski on the tight end's third score.
Here, Gronkowski lines up three yards back of the line of scrimmage, then motions to Brady's right, putting him on the same side of the field as New England's trips formation.
As the Patriots line up for this one, CBS announcer Marv Albert wonders aloud if Gronkowski will be the target again for Brady. But as Gronkowski motions, Albert's sidekick, Rich Gannon, says, "No, they're bringing him in to block."
Wrong. Gronkowski pauses next to Brady for the snap, then continues his journey to the right, taking a screen pass as Stevan Ridley, Edelman and Branch pave the way as blockers.
Brady's pass winds up traveling backwards -- hence the lateral and rushing touchdown -- but the result is the same, with Gronkowski finding himself in space, with a path to the end zone.
This is basically the opposite of how most teams run a screen, with the tight end slipping out to block while a running back or wide receiver drops inside for the pass. It's no surprise, then, that Gannon (and, apparently, the Colts' defense) expects Gronkowski to stay home and block once he shifts into the backfield.
Instead, we wind up seeing another example of how New England can use its tight end differently than just about every other NFL team can. What Gronkowski's doing for New England's playbook -- and, consequently, to opposing defenses -- is in the same vein as what Tim Tebow has done in Denver with his read-option attack. Basically, both are showing defenses things that they've never seen before, and therefore have trouble being ready to counter. No team in the NFL, including Atlanta with Gonzalez and San Diego with Gates, does with its tight end what the Patriots do with Gronkowski on offense. As a result, the second-year star out of Arizona has established himself as one of the league's best weapons.