After only a handful of snaps, Rob Gronkowski’s forearm snapped — again. He was done for the game against the Texans, and four days later, done for the year after being put on injured reserve.
Typically, when a star tight end goes out due to injury, it’s a crushing blow to his team’s offense because of the sheer amount of production that must be replaced. But that’s not the case with the Patriots, who are the modern day masters at adjusting on the fly and working with the pieces they have on the field.
The offense has spread the football around more to the running backs in the absence of Gronkowski, who missed five games in the regular season (weeks 12-16), while also replying more heavily on H-back Aaron Hernandez to pick up the slack.
Hernandez’s role in the offense has been affected not only by an increase in targets, but in his alignments as well. With Gronkowski on the field, the two tight ends are part of what I like to call a master formation. What this means is that the two tight ends are versatile enough to allow the Patriots to stay with one personnel grouping and run all sorts of concepts. At times, they’re able to run the ball effectively, as they can to pass it with these formations because of how well-rounded of an athlete Gronkowski is.
He is able to line up as a traditional tight end — in football parlance, “Y” is the given name — at the end of the formation and block defensive ends and linebackers like an offensive tackle due to his quick feet and hulking strength. And from the same alignment, he can threaten defensive backs down the seam with above-average speed and great size, which are a dangerous combination, and they’re attributes that create mismatches for defenses.
With Gronkowski in the game, Hernandez is given more freedom as a receiver because he is able to line up all over the formation and be a mismatch against smaller defensive backs or slower linebackers. Frequently, he’ll line up detached from the formation in a flex alignment (generally a three to four-yard split from LOS), or at times, in the backfield where the Patriots know he’ll be facing man coverage from an inside linebacker, who tends to be one of the slower pass defenders.
Moreover, the combination (12 personnel) is very troublesome for defenses because it forces them to either play with their base defense, which leads to them getting beat in the passing game, or go to their sub-packages, which leads them to getting beat in the running game. And when worst comes to worst, they try to go to those sub-packages and the Patriots simply go to their no-huddle offense to eliminate substitutions.
But with Gronkowski out, the master formation is different.
The Patriots have asked for more out of Hernandez from an alignment standpoint, as he’s seen his splits shorten up, and they’ve introduced tight end Michael Hoomanawanui — the new Y. The latter, who goes by the moniker “Hoo Man”, is one half of Gronkowski in terms of talent.
He’s a solid blocker, possessing a wide body and quick enough feet that enable him to block well one-on-one, but he’s not much of a pass catcher. He doesn’t have great athleticism or outstanding stature that he can use to consistently be a factor in the middle of the field like Gronkowski. However, his pass blocking duties have increased over the course of the final five games, seeing his average snaps played go up to 59 percent (per WEEI’s Christopher Price), which has helped Hernandez see more time split out wide.
Despite that increase, the Patriots still are clearly not as dangerous with Gronkowski as they are without him. He usually played the majority of the snaps when he was healthy and allowed Hernandez to be more dynamic. Now, they’re having to spend more time in their 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end), which makes them less unpredictable.
The lessened unpredictability has led the Patriots to throwing more to their running backs, namely Danny Woodhead (who is now injured) and Shane Vereen. This development, along with Hoo Man’s increased snaps, could be significant going into this weekend’s AFC Conference Championship matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, because the Ravens don’t have great athleticism and speed in space.
The Ravens’ linebackers struggle to match up with quick footed route-runners, and if Hoo Man is seeing more time on the field as a blocker, it could mean that Hernandez sees more time flexed out against the linebackers — a matchup advantage for the Patriots. The same can be said for the running backs, especially Vereen, who caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns against the Texans’ slow linebackers.
Last week, the Denver Broncos were able to get the Ravens’ Dannell Ellerbe in space against running back Knowshon Moreno, who beat him for a touchdown on a double move on the outside. Moreno was lined up wide right as part of the Broncos’ Empty set (only the QB in backfield), which is something that the Patriots will surely do as well. They did it against the Texans from the same formation and route, with Vereen matched up against linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Although the resources change for the Patriots, their ability to successfully gameplan rarely does. They frequently find the matchup advantages for their offense, and as long as Hoomanawanaui can give them meaningful snaps as the Y, they have a good chance of taking advantage of the matchups in space and getting another W.