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.