Simply put, the New England Patriots offense is very difficult to defend.
The Patriots offense poses many problems for defenses because of its versatile athletes. Despite the various personnel groupings and formations that they show, it is not an offense that I would claim to be innovative because what the Patriots do is rely on their core concepts that were developed nearly a decade ago when Charlie Weis was introduced as the offensive coordinator. However, these concepts are very effective because of the athletes that the Patriots spread out all over the field as well as the formations that are presented to defenses. Two of the athletes that have caused much of the damage recently are tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Gronkowski, a second-round pick in 2010, made an immediate impact in the NFL, averaging over 13 yards a catch and scoring 10 touchdowns. Gronkowski’s ability as a dual-threat tight end is one of the biggest problems that NFL defenses have encountered because of his stature, strength and ability to attack the seam of the defense. Because he’s over 6’6″, Gronkowski poses problems for safeties down the field because of his stature, as well as long arms and large hands. These traits are sought after at the tight end position, and Gronkowski, despite not having top end speed, possesses them. Gronkowski is also a very effective blocker because of his core strength, good hand placement, and ability to gain leverage. These are critical to effective blocking, and he does a good job of executing them — which is why he is a very important part of the New England running game.
Gronkowski’s teammate Aaron Hernandez is not built the same way nor does he play the same way. Hernandez came out of the University of Florida as more of a flex tight end, and what can be classified as an H-back. He is a satellite player, as Bill Parcells calls it, because he is a player that can be moved all over the field and pose problems for defenses by creating mismatches. Hernandez is more of a receiver than a blocker and possesses quality hands as well as open field vision. His ability to do damage after the catch is particularly frightening for defenses because he is a problem for linebackers that are walked out as well as defensive backs who are assigned to cover him. Hernandez has enough speed to outrun linebackers whilst having enough strength to out-muscle DBs. He has improved his blocking but still remains a long ways away from his cohort Gronkowski in that field.
However, what these two tight ends do is create a lot of run support problems. The NFL is a passing league but it is vital for defenses to stop the run because the minute they cannot, it becomes a running league. Once the ball is ran effectively by offenses, it opens up the entire playbook. With that being a possibility, NFL defensive coordinators must find a way to defend all the gaps presented by offenses.
(h/t footballguys.com for the image)
As can be seen above (under the assumption that it is the popular one-back set), there are a total of seven gaps (from left to right: C, B, A, A, B, C, and D equals seven). Defenses have to be able to find ways to defend the gaps presented above by offenses while being able to cover the remaining players in the passing game. But what if the TE (E) is Rob Gronkowski? As said, Gronkowski is a dual threat as a blocker and a receiver, which is a problem for linebackers that are assigned to him. His ability to do these two things allows the Patriots flexibility with their other receiving threats, specifically Hernandez.
Once the remaining three receiving threats are added, we end up with a Twins set to the right of the formation and a single backside receiver (2×1). Hernandez is in the slot with Gronkowski inline on the opposite end of the formation. What this alignment does is present seven gaps as seen earlier and then widens the defense with Hernandez in the slot. This forces the outside linebacker of the Chargers to widen out to Hernandez and split the difference between the offensive tackle and Hernandez. By doing this, the Chargers defense is at a loss in the tackle box (from the line of scrimmage out to five yards in front of it) because the the Patriots will be able to have a hat on a hat and know where they want to take the defenders, and they tip their hand as to how many guys they will play in coverage. There is also the possibility of getting Hernandez involved in the run game by executing a crack block on the linebacker. It is likelier that Hernandez does a better job of executing the block than the usual slot receiver. This is a benefit to the Patriots because it helps them get the running game going, which opens up the passing game.
Continuing with defending the gaps, the Patriots present nine of them for the Chargers to defend in the image below. It is nine because there are eight gaps along the trenches (count a gap between each player and outside of the offensive ends) and the additional back in the backfield, which makes it nine total. But this is not your ordinary nine-gap presentation. Keying the two-back set, one can see that it is not a traditional fullback in front of the running back, it is an H-back, and it is Aaron Hernandez. What the Patriots are able to do out of this two-back set is present nine gaps to defend and then use play action off of it because of the earlier success with the running game. The Patriots used the play action to perfection, finding Hernandez on this play out of the backfield.
In the next image, Gronkowski and Hernandez are both spread out, with Gronkowski at the top of the screen and Hernandez in the slot near the bottom.
The Chargers like to play a lot of man coverage, particularly Man-Free (Cover 1), and it’s exactly what they are running here. In Man-Free, the cornerbacks are expected to cover the outside receiving threats, which is where it becomes an interesting matchup for Rob Gronkowski at the top of the screen.
As noted earlier, Gronkowski is a vital part to the New England running game, but he is also a very good contributor to the passing game, primarily because of his size. At the top of the screen, he is manned up with a cornerback who he has an immediate advantage on. He is not as quick in short area as the cornerback, but he has the size and strength to out-muscle the defender and create yards after the catch if the ball is thrown in his direction.
Meanwhile, the strong safety (Bob Sanders) in Man-Free is assigned to cover the tight end or the slot receiver (Hernandez). Sanders is a very physical safety but his stature leaves a lot to be desired, and he does not run as well as in the past because of the various injuries he’s had throughout his career. What happens next is Hernandez uses his quickness and stature to beat the coverage of Sanders. Tom Brady puts the ball only where Hernandez can reach it, and it results in a touchdown. This is a mismatch and an advantage for the Patriots, which is something they often get with Hernandez working as a move tight end. He poses multiple matchup problems for defenses and is an x-factor for the Patriots.
The Patriots offense is a very dynamic one because of the matchups it presents. It is not an innovative or complex offense, but rather it relies on the things it does best that were implemented over a decade ago. The Patriots stick to their core concepts that were developed and find players that can execute them and prove to be problems for defenses. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are great examples of two players who are very good in this scheme.