By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) While Patriots fans may be holding out hope for another 17-touchdown season, tight end Rob Gronkowski should set a simpler goal, like playing a full 16-game season. It’s been three years since he last accomplished that feat and earned All-Pro honors in the process.
Since then, Gronkowski has compiled a medical dossier that’s nearly as impressive as his football resume. A twice-broken forearm has required four separate surgical procedures, and he’s had back surgery and an ACL/MCL reconstruction this past January to round it out. Considering how recent the knee reconstruction took place, it was impressive that Gronkowski was able to avoid the physically unable to perform list at the outset of training camp.
Quite understandably, Gronkowski needed the first month of the season to get his legs and conditioning back to being game-ready. He was still heavily utilized in the red zone by Tom Brady, notching four touchdowns in his first five games. However, over the past three weeks, Gronkowski has really hit his stride. He’s averaging 10 targets per game over that span, and there’s growing evidence of his confidence returning as he makes more explosive contributions in the passing game.
Against zone coverages, Gronkowski has continually worked up the vertical seam against Cover-3 looks and broken off on dig routes against Cover-2. Where his explosiveness has shown up on film is against man coverage.
Let’s go to the film room to take a closer look.
Facing a third-and-6 situation against the Bengals on Oct. 5, the Patriots came out in 11 personnel and motioned receiver Danny Amendola into the slot in a 3-by-1 far trips left formation to get a pre-snap man/zone recognition. The Bengals shift out and drop the strong safety back, which lets Brady know he has a man look and has Gronkowski singled up on a linebacker.
The Patriots run a post/wheel/stick route combination on the front side. The No. 1 receiver (Julian Edelman) runs a post route, the No. 2 receiver (Amendola) runs a wheel route in Edelman’s wake and Gronkowski runs a stick route.
This is a clever route combination that clears out both the outside and slot cornerbacks, creating room for Gronkowski to operate underneath. A “stick” route is a form of an option route that requires Gronkowski to get to the first down marker (the “sticks”), then make a hard cut opposite his defender’s leverage.
With Emmanuel Lemur playing with inside technique, Gronkowski plants hard and cuts to the outside — on his surgically repaired knee no less — and separates to make the catch and turn a short reception into a 27-yard gain.
The next example comes from the Bills game on Oct. 12. The Patriots again come out in 11 personnel in a 3-by-1 far trips left formation, but this time they flex Gronkowski alone as the split end, and he draws safety Duke Williams in man coverage on the boundary.
The Patriots run a verticals concept with Gronkowski running a stop-and-go route.
Gronkowski gets Williams to bite on the stop.
Then has enough speed to stack on top of him to give Brady an open window to drop the ball in for a 33-yard gain.
Plays like these illustrate that Gronkowski is close to — if not already — being the coverage mismatch he’s been for the majority of his career: too fast for linebackers and both too big and fast for safeties.
Seeing how much trouble Dolphins tight end Charles Clay gave the Bears last week, how the Bears choose to cover Gronkowski will be the most important decision they make with their defensive game plan.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.