At least, this time around, the Steelers aren’t going to get “Gronked”.
New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski has been much more than a simple thorn in the Steelers’ side since he came into the league. Despite the defense holding him in check for the first half of the two teams’ Week-7 matchup, it was two long completions to the oversized athlete that ultimately spelled doom for Pittsburgh.
Gronkowski is out for the season, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots have lost their offensive prowess. In fact, they still have the one player who nickel-and-dimed the Steelers during the entire game—wide receiver Julian Edelman.
In fact, Edelman is the type of player the Steelers struggled with throughout the first half of the season, as they had trouble defending the underneath pass because of a passive approach to defense while acclimating their top three rookies. Fortunately, the light has come on for all three of them.
Unfortunately, this happened in the three weeks following the Steelers’ loss to the Patriots.
The importance of the absence of Gronkowski, though, cannot be overstated. While he has a huge, immediate impact as a deep target down the seams or split-out wide, his greatest value during the course of a game might be his value as a decoy, clearing space for other receivers. In particular, he did this exceedingly well for Edelman against the Steelers. And the Pats did this primarily by using a single play, over and over again — which, after all, is one of the things the Patriots do so well: find something that works and keep using it until it doesn’t anymore.
1st Quarter, 10:18 Remaining, 1st & 10
For the most part, Edelman and Gronkowski lined up in the slot, on opposite sides of the line. This was the first time the concept was used in the game, but it would be a harbinger of things to come.
The concept is simple: Gronkowski and whichever receiver is lined up outside him run vertical routes, clearing the defense on that side of the field. Meanwhile, Edelman runs a short, underneath route, just behind the defensive line. Gronkowski clears inside linebacker on his side of the field, leaving Edelman in a one-on-one matchup with another inside linebacker. It works to perfection here, as Edelman is isolated with Vince Williams, which is an enormous speed and agility mismatch. The Patriots went to great lengths to exploit this type of matchup throughout the game, with both Williams and Lawrence Timmons.
1st Quarter, 3:43 Remaining, 2nd & 9
This time around, the Patriots make a small adjustment to hide the fact that Edelman will be coming across the middle—swapping him with tight end Martellus Bennett. Pittsburgh has a fifth linebacker on the field, with Timmons, Williams, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats playing their usual positions, while adding James Harrison outside of Jones. Harrison would end up dropping into coverage, effectively giving the Steelers a second linebacker in coverage over the short middle while allowing Williams to stay with Gronkowski.
This didn’t help, and it was a change in the Patriots’ formation that did it. Bennett ran near Timmons, which made him hesitate a moment and drop back a step. That step ended up giving Edelman enough room to get underneath him, into position to make the catch.
2nd Quarter, 4:42 Remaining, 1st & 10
This time, the departure from the basic concept is more dramatic, as Edelman also is a decoy along with Gronkowksi, and they’re lined up on the same side. But the idea is still the same: use several vertical routes to clear out space for an underneath route. Additionally, Edelman’s and Gronkowski’s presence draws the attention of Timmons, while Bennett pulls Williams along the seam on a deep route. This leaves running back James White, who’s split wide to the offensive left, one-on-one with William Gay, who is giving him a huge cushion.
One thing to note here is that, in most instances when New England used this concept, the wide receiver on the same side as Edelman also ran a short dig-route. In this case, it’s White, who’s on the other side of the field, and ends up being the target for the pass. The only thing that prevented this from being a catch was defensive end L.T. Walton getting a finger on the ball at the line.
In all, the Patriots used this same concept 10 times, and threw to Edelman on eight of those plays. It’s important to note that Edelman ran an out-route rather than a dig just a few times, and in all but the one highlighted above, two keys dictated it. The first was whether or not linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was being eased back into playing after a 3-game absence due to a knee injury, was on the field. Edelman crossed the middle of the field while Shazier was there in shallow zone coverage just once the entire game, and only twice with Shazier on the field.
The second key was the alignment of the inside linebacker on his side. If the linebacker was directly behind the defensive end, or further inside, Edelman ran an out-route. If the linebacker — usually Timmons — was further outside, Edelman ran across the middle. It was surprising that the Steelers didn’t catch onto these two keys during the game or, if they did, that they didn’t make more significant adjustments.
The absence of Gronkowski will limit the effectiveness of this concept this time around, but this serves as a good example of how the Patriots’ offense operates. They find something that works, then dare their opponent to find a way to stop it. As they did in the Week-7 game and they do every week, they’ll likely spend the first quarter probing with various approaches to see what will work, and then they’ll beat that concept to death. It will be incumbent upon the Steelers’ defense, then, to find a way to adjust quickly to stop it. And they’ll have to do exactly that if they want to find their way to Super Bowl LI.