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Patriots Take 2: How did Rob Gronkowski look in his first game back?

Posted by Erik Frenz  October 23, 2013 08:00 AM

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Believe it or not, there's more than just one play from the Patriots loss to the Jets that's worth watching again. The NFL Game Rewind of the controversial final penalty has become football's answer to the Zapruder film, but there were over 60 minutes of football before that point.

This was the first game back for Rob Gronkowski, and it was also the first game of the year without both Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. They were also without Aqib Talib and Danny Amendola. The Patriots felt the impact of all those players, lending to some thoughts about the impact of each.

We look into that and more in this week's film review.



Return of the Gronk

There were some signs of rust from Gronkowski in his first game back, but for the most part, he played well. His physicality was on display in getting off jams and blocking, he absorbed hits well, and for the most part, he was getting open.

He lined up eight times on the outside, after lining up there 18 times all of last season. The feeling here is that the Patriots may have wanted to keep him clean and away from traffic. Maybe the Patriots saw a matchup they liked better with Gronkowski out wide; in all, Brady targeted Gronkowski on 13 passes with safety Antonio Allen in coverage and completed five of them, not including a penalty that wiped away a big catch-and-run by Gronkowski in the first quarter.

Allen was the safety in coverage on Gronkowski for the big 30-yard catch in the first quarter that set the Patriots up on the one-yard line.

The Patriots didn't shy him away from contact completely, though, using him as a run-blocker, including on running back Brandon Bolden's one-yard touchdown run.

gronk block.png

Gronkowski has been a dominant run blocker in his career, and the Patriots were feeling the loss of his impact in that role. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots had 68 runs for 311 yards off tight end in 2012. Prior to facing the Jets, that number dipped to 19 runs off tight end for 34 yards. Against the Jets, they ran six times off tight end for 37 yards. Gronkowski, himself, was a blocker on 12 of his 51 snaps against the Jets.

His impact wasn't all positive, though. There were some signs of rust, including two missed opportunities on a deep pass near the end zone and a pass he nearly hauled in with one hand.

The latter of those two was more Brady's fault than Gronkowski's, but that's a play he could have made, and might have if this wasn't his first game back.

He's been practicing since the beginning of September, but a little rust was to be expected. As he gets back in the swing of the game, he'll knock the rust off and his impact will only grow.



Alfonzo Dennard's dominant day in coverage

The Patriots were without Aqib Talib, but a couple other cornerbacks stepped up in his stead. One was Logan Ryan, with a pick-six in the first quarter that put the Patriots up by a touchdown. The other was Alfonzo Dennard.

According to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed 18 receptions on 39 throws into his coverage. Against the Jets, he allowed just two receptions on five throws in his direction, and broke up a long pass intended for Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill in the fourth quarter.

dennard PBU.png

Talib has rightly garnered the attention for his dominant play, but Dennard has been solid in coverage all year long. Between the two of them, the Patriots have a legitimate and underrated duo of shutdown cornerbacks.



Mix of looks in first week without Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork

The Patriots are always mixing up their looks on defense, but against the Jets, they were almost always in a 3-4 front.

It's interesting, because they opted to shift to the 3-4 front after losing Wilfork, who is regarded as one of the best 0-technique (head-on over the center) nose tackles in the NFL.

For the most part, the front consisted of Joe Vellano at left end, either Chris Jones or Marcus Forston at nose tackle, either Chris Jones or Chandler Jones at right end, Rob Ninkovich at left outside linebacker, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at inside linebacker, and either Chandler Jones or Jamie Collins at right outside linebacker.

3-4 1.png

They were in a 3-4 front on seven of the 12 plays on the Jets' opening touchdown drive; the other five times, they were in some form of sub package.

The 3-4 personnel grouping was used to counter the Jets two-tight end or two-back sets, and the Patriots stayed mostly in three-man lines when they went to the sub package.

This might be a sign of things to come, or the Patriots remain a game plan defense that changes its scheme each week based on its opponent.



12:26 stretch defined momentum swing for Patriots

The Patriots seemed to have the game in hand headed into halftime, but the momentum began to swing ever so slightly with 29 second left in the half, and by the 3:13 mark of the third quarter, it had completely flipped in favor of the Jets.

In that stretch, the Jets forced a punt to end the half, sacked Brady three times, forced three three-and-outs, and had a pick-six.

Left tackle Nate Solder came into the spotlight for giving up two of those sacks, one each against defensive ends Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson.

On the first play of the second half, Coples was able to swipe Solder's arms away before the long-armed left tackle could get into his pads. The defensive end then flipped his hips and turned straight upfield for the quarterback.

In much the same manner, Wilkerson was able to keep Solder's hands off him. The only difference was, Wilkerson went inside unlike Coples, who used a swim move to the outside.

Solder is a dominant left tackle, but he's not perfect. Wilkerson was drafted in the first round the same year as Solder; Coples went in the first round the very next year. The Jets strength is their defensive line. It should be no surprise that that unit is the one that came up big to help get the Jets back into the game.

We'll remember the plays where the Jets got to Brady, but the offensive line did a good job of keeping him clean for the most part, allowing pressure on only 16 of 50 dropbacks. Solder, specifically, was perfect outside of those two sacks.



Aaron Dobson becoming go-to target over Kenbrell Thompkins?

We know Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski will always have a special place in Tom Brady's heart, but two rookies are vying for his affection as well.

On the day, Brady threw seven passes toward Aaron Dobson and five toward Kenbrell Thompkins. Dobson earned his targets while running a route on just 32 snaps, whereas Thompkins' five targets came on 49 snaps as a route-runner.

Dobson's solid release was evident throughout training camp, and while he wasn't always open, he was making easy work of Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner.

Despite being open, he caught just three balls thrown his direction. Why? A mix of reasons. He came open on the sideline on a comeback route the very next play, but Brady threw it too wide.

A couple of times, Jets cornerbacks simply played great defense and stayed with Dobson stride-for-stride.

Dobson was lined up at the top of the screen on the above play, and appeared to get past the coverage of Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but the veteran caught up with the rookie and the coverage was too tight for Dobson to make a play. The ball was also a bit overthrown.

The rookie was open once again deep down the right sideline, and although it's a tight window, that's a throw Brady should be able to make. Instead, it was launched a couple of yards too far, and fell harmlessly out of bounds.

Long story short, Dobson gets open, and the idea to throw it to him wasn't bad, but the throws, sometimes, were.

Special thanks to readers Jan Bergmann and Eitan Katz for asking me to look into this.



Tom Brady looking less terrific lately

"Is Tom Brady's age catching up to him?"

It seems this question comes up every so often. Usually, it's around the time the Patriots lose in the postseason. Almost always, the question is answered -- definitively, no -- very shortly after it's posed.

Brady hasn't had many games in his career as bad as the one he had against the Jets, and coupled with his poor performance against the Bengals a few weeks ago and the overall erratic state of the offense, that question is being asked once again.

Of Brady's 24 incomplete passes, two were dropped, one was lost in the sun, two were thrown away because of good coverage, six were good plays in coverage by the Jets, one was incomplete because Austin Collie didn't drag his toe, and the other 11 (including the interception) were bad throws by Brady.

brady deep.pngThe focal point of some of the issues has been his deep ball. His accuracy has dipped on the deep ball in each of the past three years, but the volume of attempts has increased, putting more of a spotlight on that particular area of his game. The Patriots wanted to gear their offense more toward a vertical attack with receivers like Dobson, Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Danny Amendola, but as of yet, it hasn't fully paid off.

When's it time to hit the panic button?

It may seem hard to believe, given that we're three months into the new offensive experiment, but one scout told me he believes Brady's struggles may still be due to a lack of chemistry and trust with his new wide receivers.

"The deep ball accuracy still has do to the different receivers he has had to work with," the scout said. "It takes time to develop timing knowing where his receivers are going to be and developing trust."

While, certainly, the receivers share some of the burden, this game might serve as a perfect example that the Patriots can overcome a lot of offensive problems, but not when the source of their problems is Brady. He still hasn't had his full complement of weapons yet this season, so he gets the benefit of the doubt until that happens.

Even still, consider this: Brady was 11-of-18 in the first half, and 11-of-28 in the second half. He had just 12 incomplete passes in the first 51:47 of the game. The final 12 incomplete passes all came in the final 18:16.

He may not seem like the same quarterback 100 percent of the time, but Brady's still in there somewhere.




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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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