The Patriots head into their bye week a head-scratching 7-2 despite a devastating rash of injuries and uneven performances on both sides of the ball.
Today we’ll take stock of the Patriots’ offense, which is coming off its best performance of the year. To be sure, Pittsburgh’s defense had a lot to do with it as they blew coverages and missed tackles all afternoon but the Pats deserve plenty of credit as well, and none more so than the league’s best tight end, Rob Gronkowski. They showed improvements in some key areas that suggest Sunday’s performance was more harbinger than anomaly. Improvements such as better weakside protection in their run blocking, far fewer mistakes in the passing game, and more diverse play-calling. Plenty of folks deserve credit for these but none more so than the best tight end in the league, Rob Gronkowski.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Gronkowski has on this offense. Certainly the first half of Sunday’s game, in which he pulled down seven catches for 119 yards and a touchdown, is a testament to what the 6’6” 265-pounder can do for the team. But even when he isn’t putting up those eye-popping numbers, Gronkowski is dramatically affecting the game.
After getting torched by the tight end in the first half, Pittsburgh emphasized jamming Gronk at the line of scrimmage in the second half, often with multiple defenders. Naturally, the attention he draws opens up opportunities elsewhere on the field for his fellow recievers.
And even if he isn’t catching passes or drawing double teams, the combination of his blocking and receiving abilities mean Gronkowski’s mere presence gives the Patriots incredible flexibility in their play-calling and helps create balance between the run and pass attack. Without Gronk the Pats were hesitant to throw out of many two-TE-sets because backups Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan simply could not be relied upon to get open. As a result, the offense was more predictable: When the Pats wanted to throw they had to use three wide receivers and when they brought in two tight ends, opponents could sell out against the run.
Prior to Sunday, the Patriots ran plays with two or more tight ends just 19 percent of the time. Against the Steelers, 36 of their 75 plays (48 percent), featured two or more tight ends - and that number figures to grow when you consider that Gronkowski only played 49 snaps against Pittsburgh as he works himself back into game shape.
Another reason fans can expect more offensive performances like Sundays’ is the improved receiving corps. Naturally, Gronkowksi’s return is a boon to the passing game and the attention he draws helps everyone else look better, but there were some things we saw from Aaron Dobson on Sunday that suggest he and Brady are starting to get in synch.
For weeks Dobson and Brady have tried and failed to connect on the back shoulder throw along the sidelines but last week against the Steelers they finally got it, in the end zone no less.
On another play, Brady dropped the ball into Dobson’s outstretched hands in perfect stride 50 yards down the left sideline, allowing the receiver to stay on his feet and take it in for an 81-yard touchdown. Earlier in the year that’s a missed throw, a dropped ball, or, at-best, a diving catch that keeps Dobson from continuing on for the touchdown.
In terms of the running game, hats off to Josh McDaniels for finally committing to Stevan Ridley. He is their best back and its not even close. After splitting time with LeGarrette Blount for weeks, Ridley finally got the lion’s share of the workload, rushing 26 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns, to Blount’s five carries for 47 yards.
At the moment, the biggest question mark on the Patriots’ offense is the line. Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly aren’t starter-quality linemen, and the drop-off from right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who might be the best in the game at his position but is out for the season with broken leg, to third-year player Marcus Cannon is enormous. Left tackle Nate Solder and guard Logan Mankins are playing well but they need more than two of five linemen to be productive. On the bright side, Cannon should improve with more reps and they are definitely a competent run blocking unit, which becomes more important as the weather gets worse.
Looking ahead, if the line can hold up, and, obviously, the team stays healthy, the offense will continue to improve.