Rob Gronkowski and the Free Release

ManningBrady XVI calls for a IVpart series of passing previews. After Covering Gronk and Beating Brady, Mark Schofield explores how the Patriots’ play design and execution has been successful against the Broncos defense in the past.

In Part 1, we explored how the Broncos will try to disrupt Tom Brady. Part 2 of this series outlined how the Denver Broncos contained the New England Patriots receivers, with an emphasis on their plan for Rob Gronkowski. During their Week 12 meeting in the 2013 regular season, Denver often jammed Gronkowski or denied him a free release off the line of scrimmage. Here in Part 3, we will examine how Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots’ receivers were able to find openings against the Denver defense. When the Broncos failed in those tasks, it proved costly.


On this play, New England faces 2nd and 9 on Denver’s 29-yard line. Brady sets up in the shotgun with 11 personnel, with Gronkowski adopting a three-point stance on the right side of the line. With their nickel defense the Broncos show Cover 1 in the secondary:

Robert Ayers is lined up well outside of Gronkowski, and as the ball is snapped he ignores the tight end and focuses on his pass rushing responsibilities:


Strong safety Duke Ihenacho tries to cover Gronkowski, but after coming off the line untouched the tight end is able to quickly get into his post route. Ihenacho can’t close down the cushion fast enough and Gronkowski has inside leverage on his route. Brady hits him in stride and the Patriots have a big gain into the red zone:

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On the Wing

Part 2 also covered how the Broncos would jam Gronkowski when he was positioned in a wing alignment. Similar to the previous play, their failure to execute the initial jam gave the big tight end room to maneuver. On this play, New England faces a 10-point deficit and a 3rd-and-goal situation late in the third quarter. They empty the backfield and Gronkowski is in a wing alignment to the left of the formation:

Denver’s nickel personnel is in the game and they show straight Cover 0 across the field. Off the snap Von Miller focuses on his pass rush and does not lay a finger on the tight end. This allows Gronkowski to cleanly enter the end zone on a slant route. He then uses his body to shield linebacker Wesley Woodyard from the football and the Patriots have another touchdown:

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Given the contrast in results between the Broncos jamming him and letting him off the line unscathed Gronkowski can expect a very physical afternoon Sunday.

Underneath Against Backers

In both the AFC Championship game and the regular season meeting, the Patriots enjoyed steady success when they focused on getting quicker players matched up against the slower Denver linebackers in underneath coverage. On this play from the regular season meeting, New England has 1st and 10 with 4:50 remaining in overtime. The Patriots empty the backfield and have a trips formation to the left. Gronkowski (circled in red) is in the middle of the trips with Julian Edelman (circled in white) on the wing. Denver’s nickel personnel shows Cover 2 Man Under. The Broncos decide to put a defensive back over Gronkowski leaving Woodyard in man coverage on Edelman:

The receiver burns the linebacker on a simple stutter-step move and is wide open for a big play:

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In the AFC Championship game, Shane Vereen exploits this concept, particularly when split wide in the formation. Here he is split wide to the left as the Patriots have an empty backfield facing 4th and 3. Denver’s nickel personnel show Cover 2 with man coverage underneath:

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Vereen scorches linebacker Danny Trevathan in a one-on-one matchup and is wide open for his quarterback. The running back picks up the first down and a bit more.


Tying these two concepts together, look for New England to use a lot of 11 personnel Sunday with Vereen often split out in the formation. This will stretch the Denver defense horizontally and force them to make matchup decisions across the board, likely having to leave a linebacker in coverage on Vereen or one of the receivers. The Patriots can then look to exploit the personnel mismatch.

Spreading the field might have another benefit. On the first two plays analyzed, the Broncos were in a nickel package and did not get an initial jam on Gronkowski. If spreading the field increases the chance the tight end gets a free release after the snap, that is a welcome benefit. Even if the defense still denies the tight end an easy path, as we will see in the final installment of this series, working against the Denver linebackers has been a path to success for teams in 2014.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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