With Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense is elite. Without, not so much . . . Tom Brady or no Tom Brady. We know Gronk is a pass-catching freak, but his blocking is equally as important. In fact, it says here that he’s the best blocker the Pats have had at that position since Daniel Graham came out of the University of Colorado in 2002 and earned that first-round paycheck by helping keep elite edge rushers like Dwight Freeney in check. Gronk has that ability, especially with his long arms and larger frame.
Not having the All-Everything tight end was costly a number of times last year, maybe never as much as it was in Week 15 at Miami. Not only did the Pats fail to convert a number of red-zone opportunities, but they deemed it a good idea to single up some of their tight ends on defensive end Cameron Wake. Wake won the battle and the 'Fins won the game.
Wake had a pair of pressures, a QB hit and a sack. None of these plays were made out of exotic fronts of with stunts or blitzes. It was straight up off the left end and the Pats decided that Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and James Develin could handle the job. They couldn’t.
I asked Bill Belichick if the overall depth and talent on that 'Fins defensive line made it difficult to always devote more attention to Wake.
“Yeah, sure. You can’t . . . you could probably pick out one guy if you wanted to . . . depending on what the front is. And they pressure enough to where you can’t always get help where you want to because you have to block the linebacker or secondary player that’s blitzing. They do plenty of that. Even if you want to help on one guy, then you still have to deal with the other guys. They do a good job of that. They do a good job of recognizing who has the best chance and those guys rush very aggressively and the guys that get doubled or have less of an opportunity on that particular play, they kind of are ready to replace the penetrating rusher and that type of thing. It’s well coordinated.”
The sack came at a critical juncture and was nothing special,as you’ll see from the screenshots below. The first illustrates the front the Pats were looking at and how they would handle their blocking responsibilities.
As the ball is snapped, right tackle Marcus Cannon is zoning up his area, waiting to see if No. 53, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, is going to come on a delayed blitz. Meanwhile. right guard Dan Connolly is man up on the defensive tackle lined up to his outside shoulder. This leaves Hooman on an island with Wake. No backs to chip. Just a wing and a prayer.
Jenkins eventually does pressure, so Cannon singles him up. Meanwhile, Dan Connolly loses his leverage -- and his feet -- creating additional pressure for Brady. But make no mistake about it: Wake just overpowered Hoomanawanui and came up with a critical sack midway through the third quarter, taking the air out of a potential Pats scoring drive.
Wake schooling the Pats tight ends wasn’t just a one-time thing. Three other times, he defeated one-on-one blocks and forced Brady to get rid of the ball too soon, forcing incompletes. On this next play, the Pats tried to bring Jimmy Develin in motion. Develin actually had what appeared to be good positioning, but Wake's combo of size and strength was too much for the former Brown University defensive tackle.
I won’t bore you with the details of what Wake did to Mulligan. Suffice to say it was as quick and painful as the other examples and proof that even if Gronk is still limited because of that knee, he could still be of great assistance in giving Brady that extra time, extra time that's needed against a defense like Miami's. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady got the ball out of his hand an average of 2.15 seconds on his 55 attempts versus the 'Fins in December, which is at least .3 of a second quicker than his norm.