Two years ago I spent an afternoon talking football with Rob Gronkowski. In the bowels of Gillette Stadium, we occupied an undecorated office about the size of a big house’s pantry. Gronk had come in after a training camp practice. He wore a royal blue muscle shirt and matching shorts, and before we got started he placed a quick call telling whoever was on the other line that the plumber would “be at the house in an hour.” Then he put away his phone, sat at an empty table across from me, both feet squarely on the ground, and shared everything he could think to share about playing tight end. It was marvelous.
He went into immaculate detail about running routes, reading defenses and catching passes, but what I also remember was how equally enthused he was when explaining blocking. “I love blocking,” he said. “It is crucial to the game of football. It’s always about keeping your feet moving and your hands inside.” He proceeded to cite lessons from different coaches from over his career.
Down the stretch this 2018 season, NFL fans, though over-reacting to a perceived decline in Gronkowski’s receiving prowess, gushed over how the ninth-year veteran was compensating with dominant blocks in the running game. But no one close to Gronkowski was surprised.
That level of blocking from Gronk “has been going on for a long time,” Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said on Wednesday. “It’s really hard to find guys that play that position that can be the type of in-line blockers that you like. There are guys who are really great receivers, guys who are very skilled with the athletic movements and stuff like that, but they really aren’t very good blockers. Rob—and [No. 2 tight end] Dwayne Allen—are guys who do have in-line power and complement the things that we like to do in the run game. With them, we are not a team that just runs between the tackles, we can also get [outside], those guys can help us get to the edge.”
A balanced ground game has been huge in New England’s late season surge, letting the Patriots control the tempo of contests while keeping their good-but-not-great defense off the field, sheltered from high-flying offenses like the Chargers’ and Chiefs’. Improved interior O-line play has factored, as has the dominant lead-blocking of fullback James Develin and mature running of rookie Sony Michel. But the tipping point has been Gronkowski.
As Tom Brady explained on Wednesday, “It's impressive to be 270 pounds, to play basically every play and win every matchup in the run game against 300-pound defensive ends, or [quicker] 240-pound defensive ends… [Gronk] is a physical freak.”
Days after our visit in that dinky Gillette Stadium office, an AFC offensive coordinator told me he thought Gronkowski was as good a blocker as most NFL right tackles. Except right tackles can’t block all over the formation like Gronk. One of New England’s staple plays is the “wham” run, where a guard essentially lets a defensive tackle into the backfield only for that defensive tackle to be earholed by a tight end who’s screaming down the line of scrimmage. It’s a tactic offenses love against aggressive gap-shooting defensive tackles… like say an Aaron Donald or an Ndamukong Suh.
“You just throw your body in there,” Allen says. “I mean, when you’re dealing with guys that weigh 330 pounds, you can’t get too technical with them. You’re just trying to get your force going at them before their force gets going the other way.” Even with the favorable angle and the momentum you have from moving before delivering a blow, it’s a tough matchup for a tight end. But the offense can reap significant reward.
“What that play does,” says Scarnecchia, “is it helps cut the defense. Whoever you’re whamming, you’re hoping to isolate that half of the defense.” In other words, if the Patriots let Donald into the backfield but smash his left earhole with Gronk, it can create a quick running lane that cuts off almost all defenders to Donald’s right.
“I like blocking on the move,” Gronkowski told me in our conversation two years ago. “It’s the same mechanics as regular blocking”—which Gronk likens to pushing a stalled car, where your hands are up and your legs are always churning—“only you come in with momentum.”
Scarnecchia stresses that “wham” is a basic play that every team runs and that New England has deployed for multiple decades. It’s a play less contingent on design and more on sound execution.
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“Toughness is mandatory,” Scarnecchia says. “If a guy’s not very tough, he’s gonna go out as fast as he came in. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone wants to do it. We’ve had guys that have done it who you wouldn’t think could do it. We’ve had guys like that so it’s something that we do.”
No traditional stat can capture a tight end’s blocking, which is why that tough work will never help someone like Gronk earn a Super Bowl MVP award. But if the Patriots best the Rams on Sunday, you can bet Gronkowski’s blocking will have been a significant factor.
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