For an offensive coordinator, the objective with any star tight end is to get him favorable matchups against linebackers or safeties. This is usually achieved through one of two ways: route combinations leveraged against a zone defense, or formation wrinkles where the tight end is split out wide, working against an ill-equipped man defender in space.
The Patriots can do both with Rob Gronkowski. They’re most dangerous against zone, when Josh McDaniels gets Gronkowski open by aligning him in his regular tight end spot on the line of scrimmage with another tight end closing the formation outside of him (pictured below).
It’s an ideal look to run against a Cover-3 defense because it gets Gronk quickly down the seams, where he’s most dangerous. If the Seahawks, whose base defensive scheme is a hybrid man-zone Cover-3, aren’t prepared for this, they’ll lose Super Bowl XLIX.
Here’s a breakdown of the concept.
This first-and-10 completion to Gronkowski is a perfect illustration of what New England’s offense is all about. The Patriots are in “12” personnel (1 RB, 2 TE). There are dual tight ends closing the formation (i.e. not split out). Both receivers are to the wide side of the field, with Julian Edelman in the slot. The Dolphins are in their base 4-3. Because safety Jimmy Wilson has walked down to cover Edelman and CB Cortland Finnegan has stayed outside on the tight end side, Tom Brady knows it’s zone coverage. (If it were man-to-man, Finnegan would have followed Edelman to the other side of the field.)
From this pre-snap look alone, Brady knows Gronkowski will be open down the seam.
The formation sets up Gronkowski. The route combinations, illustrated above, finalize the deal. In this single-high zone (i.e. Cover-3), the outside corners are responsible for the widest vertical threats. The free safety takes care of the middle of the field. On this play, TE Tim Wright releases vertically to the outside of Gronkowski. CB Finnegan is forced to widen with him. To augment this action, Wright stems towards the sideline, creating a bigger window for Gronkowski. Helping underneath to create this window: the fake handoff—something that, on first-and-10, inside linebackers will react to.
The other factor here: the single-high safety, Reshad Jones, is titled towards the hashmarks closest to the wide receivers and furthest from Gronkowski. The play-action plus Brady’s eyes upon turning around freeze Jones just enough.
The only man left who can possibly defend Gronkowski is outside linebacker Jason Trusnik, who doesn’t begin to have the speed or quickness for the job. Trusnik is also caught on the outside, allowing a throwing window to Gronk’s inside. Plus Trusnik must have the alertness to abandon his zone and follow Gronk.
Trusnik did a good job mentally, but the physical factors were too much to overcome.
Super Bowl 49 Deep Dive
The Seahawks are a more challenging defense than the Dolphins. Instead of Finnegan outside, it will be the long-armed Byron Maxwell. And the linebacker in Trusnik’s place will be either the athletic Bruce Irvin or, more likely, K.J. Wright, a much better mover and more alert pass defender. And the single-high safety is Earl Thomas, the headiest and rangiest in the league.
But there’s a saying in football: Geometry doesn’t have bad days. Against Seattle the closed dual TE play-action seam throw to Gronkowski will demand a tighter window throw from Brady. But the play’s geometry ensures that the window will at least be there.
As for when it’s man coverage, something to consider is that in Week 2, Antonio Gates had seven catches for 96 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle. The majority of that production came out of 3 x 1 sets with Gates flexed just a few yards to the weak side. Depending on the coverage concept, Seattle put either Wright or Chancellor on the tight end. Don’t be surprised if, in addition to the dual tight end closed sets, you see these sorts of condensed formations from New England:
Aside from perhaps Shane Vereen against a linebacker, Gronkowski is the only Patriots offensive player who will have a talent advantage over whichever Seahawk defender he faces. His impact against Seattle’s foundational coverages will decide Super Bowl XLIX.
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