It was four weeks into the season, and people were laughing.
They were laughing at Rob Gronkowski, arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, because he declared himself to be a blocking tight end in Tampa Bay in an underwhelming statistical return from retirement.
They were laughing at him because his awkwardness in the screen game belied his age as a 31-year old with a long injury history, never mind the fact that Gronkowski has never been a manufactured-touch, get-him-the-ball-in-space receiver.
They were laughing at him for a drop down the seam against Carolina in Week 2, for not being on the same page as Tom Brady on an interception in the same game, for getting taken down by a defensive tackle in the open field on a short screen pass in Week 1 and for managing just nine catches for 88 yards and zero scores through the season’s first four weeks.
But after the past three games, who is laughing now?
The script has officially been flipped for Gronkowski over the past three weeks, as the big tight end has reeled in 13 grabs for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He’s the second-leading receiver for the Bucs with 22 catches for 280 yards and two TDs for the year. Amidst the 13 catches have been several highlight reel grabs, but almost all of Gronkowski’s production has come off of two patterns: over routes and fade routes.
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The Over Route
Over the past three weeks, every defense has tried to stop the over route from Brady to Gronkowski, and nobody has found a way to do it. Man, zone, linebacker, safety, cornerback in coverage … it simply hasn’t mattered. Whatever a defense has shown, Brady and Gronkowski have shredded it.
Chicago tried to be physical with Gronkowski, chipping him at the line of scrimmage and then again with a linebacker at the second level. The former All-Pro warded off both blows and raced by linebacker Danny Trevathan in man coverage for a 13-yard pickup.
Gronkowski’s first big over route catch against Green Bay came against a blitz after Brady slid left in the pocket, bought a little more time and rifled a perfect throw between two defenders. Packers linebacker Oren Burks actually does a pretty good job of falling back underneath the deep crossing pattern, but Gronkowski knows exactly how deep to run the route and where to break to the sideline to make the angle tough for the free safety, giving Brady just enough space to fit this ball in.
With the safety beginning the play aligned to the field (3-receiver side), Brady knows pre-snap that Gronkowski will have leverage on the route if he works more vertical rather than cutting toward the sideline. Gronkowski does just that, running away from the linebacker and making a fearless catch with the safety closing over the top. The result is 31 yards and a huge first down.
Again, single-high safety for the Packers who look like they are in man coverage across the board. But this time the safety is aligned to the single receiver side, making it a tougher pre-snap call for Brady. The quarterback does an outstanding job of holding the safety on the hash with his eyes, while Gronkowski recognizes the defender’s position and has to bend his route more to the sideline than he did on the previous over route throw.
The throw by Brady is absolutely perfect, but Gronkowski’s ability to run away from a cornerback and open up enough of a throwing window to fit the ball in is pretty incredible. It also flies in the face of what we’ve heard about Gronkowski since he returned to the league – that he can’t run or move anymore. Moving pretty well here I’d say.
Against the Raiders this past Sunday, Brady and Gronkowski really went to work. After missing his tight end on a wide open over route on the first play of the game, Brady didn’t miss much the rest of the game.
The motion by Leonard Fournette here tells Brady that he can expect man coverage post snap, and with the safety playing Gronkowski with outside leverage, the over route should be there for the taking. Again, the veteran tight end runs away from a defensive back in man coverage, opening up a clear throwing window for Brady to find him for a 28-yard gain.
Brady’s first read here is the over route vs. single high, and because it’s been working so well he’s obviously looking to go there first. Again, it looks like it’s gonna be man coverage with an outside leverage defender on Gronkowski, but when the ball is snapped nobody covers the tight end, making it an easy decision and throw for Brady. The quarterback’s eyes hold the safety on the hash until Scotty Miller’s over route from the opposite side gets the defender off his landmark enough for Brady to fit the throw in to Gronkowski for a 26-yard gain.
Now, a couple other interesting things to note here. Clearly Miller is open for a touchdown on this play, as is Mike Evans. Evans actually spins Trayvon Mullen like a top with a wonderful route, and it’s a touchdown if Brady decides to go to the All-Pro receiver. Did Brady make the right decision?
Yes. Post-snap Brady quickly identifies that the Raiders have blown the coverage on Gronkowski. All he has to do is keep the safety from jumping the over route, and it’s an automatic completion. There’s no reason to look anywhere else once Brady sees that. The fact that Evans and Miller beat their defenders on the same play is terrific, but when a blown coverage occurs, you attack it. Prolonging the process to wait for something better in the pocket is how sacks happen and throwing windows down the field close.
You also have to love Evans’ body language. So many wide receivers would be putting on a show to let everyone know how badly they cooked the opposing cornerback and how open they were on the play, but not Evans. He runs right over to Gronkowski after the catch and helps him up. Just look after the Tyler Johnson touchdown late in the game, Evans was the first to run over and congratulate the rookie. Completely selfless, team-first captain. Mad respect for Evans leading this team well this season.
The Fade Route
I’ll hit these quick, but I just had to show a little of the Brady-Gronkowski red zone magic that has returned over the past two weeks.
There’s nothing fancy here. If you come out in heavy personnel (two tight end set here) and flex Gronkowski out wide, he’s probably going to draw a safety or a linebacker in coverage most of the time. That’s a mismatch before the ball is even snapped.
Gronkowski looks over his inside shoulder, which relaxes the defender because he knows he’s in position to combat a throw up high for the big pass-catcher. But at the last second Gronkowski swivels around and snags the back-shoulder toss, boxing out the defender with his frame.
The Raiders decided they weren’t gonna defend Gronkowski with a safety or a linebacker, instead opting for 5-9 cornerback Nevin Lawson. Bold strategy, Cotton. In retrospect, I’m not sure it would have mattered. Throws don’t get more perfect than this one by Brady, and a perfect throw and perfect catch will always beat perfect coverage.
The fade route is not a very high percentage throw on the goal line, but with a target like Gronkowski, flexed out wide like the Bucs are finally doing? It’s a little more high percentage than how most teams in the league can run it. It took a few games, but the Bucs are getting Gronkowski involved in the passing game by letting him stretch the field horizontally between the 20s, and then letting his ball skills shine in the red zone. It’s the perfect complement to the rest of an already-deadly offensive arsenal in Tampa Bay.
• Brady was hit one time on Sunday, as the Bucs offensive line continued a marvelous season in pass protection for their veteran quarterback. Yes, Brady’s quick release time helps, but the Bucs are one of the most explosive downfield attacks in the NFL this season. That doesn’t happen without superb protection, and the Raiders defensive line was beaten to a pulp on passing downs on Sunday. All five starters have been terrific.
• Like we all thought entering the season, Miller leads the Bucs in receiving yards (365) and average yards per catch (16.6 avg.) as the 2020 campaign nears the halfway point. I don’t think it can be overstated how valuable he has been to this Bucs offense with Chris Godwin missing three games and Evans hobbled most of the season with a sprained ankle. His breakout has been huge for Tampa Bay, and I really hope the addition of Antonio Brown doesn’t cut into Miller’s workload too much. The Bucs need his speed on the field.
• How valuable was Leonard Fournette’s return on Sunday? The Bucs running back room leads all running back rooms in the NFL with nine official drops this season, although one or two more could easily be added to that total. To put it bluntly, watching the Bucs’ backs in the passing game has been consistently the most embarrassing aspect of a season with few things to complain about.
After Ronald Jones II flubbed an easy catch on a screen that would have likely hit for a big gain, Fournette took over as the pass-catching back and caught six of his seven targets for 47 yards, including a critical third-and-13 conversion early in the fourth quarter. Fournette is just an average receiving back in my mind, but that’s light years beyond anything else the Bucs have at the position right now, and it’s an important role in their offense. Hopefully the coaching staff continues to lean on the former fourth overall pick moving forward.
CLICK PAGE 2 TO SEE LEDYARD’S BREAKDOWN OF THE BIG PASSING PLAYS THE BUCS DEFENSE SURRENDERED TO THE RAIDERS ON SUNDAY
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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