Football is a team game, where every individual needs to do their job for the team to get the necessary six inches. The offensive line must flow as one, and defenders must react in concert. Especially when facing the most talented players and rarest of creatures. Joshua Soden looks at the most powerful offensive force in the NFL, Robert James Gronkowski.
As Tom Brady prepares for his sixth career Super Bowl, he will have something he’s never had in any previous Super Bowl appearance: someone capable of not just great, but historic feats of athleticism. An influence so powerful, he demands the attention of multiple defenders on nearly every play just to attempt to contain him.
Nope, not Captain America. Better. A fully healthy Rob Gronkowski. Brady and Gronkowski have a previous championship appearance, but the freakish tight end was hobbled in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. Gronkowski limped to the finish line after a record-shattering 2011 regular season, setting benchmarks for the most yards and TDs by a tight end while becoming the first TE to ever lead the league in TD receptions.
Gronkowski started those playoffs exactly the way he completed that regular season, eviscerating the Broncos for 145 yards and three TDs in a 45-10 blowout. He was largely contained in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore after exiting the game with a high ankle sprain. Gronkowski was clearly impaired in the Super Bowl, a shell of his dominant self. Credit him for playing through the pain, but he was held to 26 yards on three targets as the Patriots lost.
What transpired over the next two seasons threatened to derail what appeared to be a brilliant career. In 2012, Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm in the regular season and missed five games. He returned for the final contest of the regular season but re-broke the same right forearm in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Houston Texans while attempting to bring in a pass along the sideline. Gronkowski needed further surgery in the offseason, but an infection complicated his recovery and he required several follow-up procedures to properly heal. Adding to his woes, he underwent another surgery on his back ‒ the same injury that robbed him of a collegiate season. Gronkowski missed the first six weeks of the 2013 season as a result of his offseason surgeries, but quickly showed the form from his first two seasons and appeared nearly 100-percent healthy.
That changed dramatically in Week 13 when Gronkowski caught a seam pass and took a blow directly to his knee from Browns safety T.J. Ward, tearing his ACL and MCL. Gronkowski missed the remainder of the 2013 season and faced a career in peril.
Gronkowski recovered from his knee injury ahead of schedule for the start of the 2014 season, but it was clear Week 1 in Miami that he was playing at less than 100 percent and the Patriots were restraining his activity. Even on a restricted snap count, while physically limited, Gronkowski was still capable of being an asset in the red zone, beating cornerback Brent Grimes across the field and hauling in a TD against the Dolphins.
Gronkowski played less than 50 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps the first two weeks, and less than 80 percent of their snaps through Week 7, where it appeared the Patriots were finally comfortable turning him loose without any restrictions. In all but two games from Week 7 on, Gronkowski played in 90 percent or more of the Patriots offensive snaps, including a 51-23 trouncing of the Bears in which Gronkowski amassed 149 yards and 3 TDs.
Mark Schofield broke down Gronkowski’s signature play from the Bears game as his Offensive Play of the Week. Everything about his 46-yard bulldozing to the end zone ‒ from Gronkowski easily beating strong safety Chris Conte, to him effortlessly throwing aside free safety Ryan Mundy like a ragdoll ‒ clearly illustrated he was back to being the unstoppable force that had people mentioning him in the same breath as Mike Ditka, John Mackey, and Kellen Winslow Sr.
Gronkowski finished the 2014 season as Pro Football Focus’s top-rated TE by a wide margin with a grade of 22.9 overall and a 23.8 on passing plays. Amongst TEs, he led the league with 234 DYAR while also leading the league in receiving yards and tied for the league lead in TDs.
The Matchup Against Seattle
A resurgent Gronkowski played an integral role in the Patriots trip to the Super Bowl. He’s been extremely productive, leading TEs in passing yards per route run*. To put that into context, among receivers, Gronkowski’s 2.53 yards/route run would have ranked eighth, just behind players such as Demaryius Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr., and ahead of Calvin Johnson, T. Y. Hilton, and Emmanuel Sanders. Simply put, Gronkowski is one of the most dangerous pass catchers in the league, regardless of position. The Seahawks, armed with the league’s top-ranked defense with a -16.3% DVOA**, will make defending Gronkowski their top priority. Seattle has struggled this season against TEs, ranking just 18th in the league with -1.1% DVOA**.
The job of containing Gronkowski will likely be taken on by multiple players on Seattle’s defense. He does the majority of his damage down the middle of the field, routinely busting zone coverages on seam routes, which means much of the responsibility will be on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Thomas is Seattle’s second-best defender against the pass this season, after Richard Sherman, with a 13.6 rating. Chancellor (3.9) and Wagner (2.5) also rate well against the pass*.
In his only previous appearance against Seattle, Gronkowski was held to six catches and 61 yards in a 24-23 Seahawks victory in 2012. In that game, he ended the game with a PFF rating of 2.2. Wagner held his own with a 0.6 pass coverage grade, while Thomas and Chancellor both struggled with -2.1 and -1.1 coverage grades respectively*.
When healthy, there are few options in the NFL as utterly dominant as Rob Gronkowski. His rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism make it incredibly hard for defenses to match up. Regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX, one thing is clear: Rob Gronkowski is back, and he is a force to be reckoned with.