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.

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.

Offensive Notebook

• 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.

Bucs RB Leonard Fournette

Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: USA Today

• 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

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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jongruden
9 months ago

Actually Jon, that td was on David if you watch the video Winfield drops down to take the slot wr if he doesn’t than that guy is wide open so either double team the wr David was assigned too or leave a wide open wr for a td. I do not like pointing out that David was burned on that play as he is my fav player but film doesn’t lie and neither do I

Spiritus
Reply to  jongruden
9 months ago

You’re looking at the wrong safety. Whitehead is in teh single high look at snap and matches with Waller as you observe. WInfield is in the box beside White at snap and rolls back to deep support immediately. I think what makes him hesitate @-- teh 5 (as Jon noted) is seeing teh back slip out for a checkdown, but that should be White’s responsibility. I think Winfield’s eyes betrayed him here. That said, this was a fantastic pass, high and away from where Winfield would have been closing. I think this is a TD even if Winfield broke to… Read more »

ScottC543
9 months ago

Gronk has incredible hands. Even when the defender is right there fighting for the ball, Gronk finds a way to pull it in.

And Jamel Dean is very fast.

The array of talent we have on both sides of the ball is truly intoxicating for us long suffering Bucs fans. These are days we’ll never forget.

Naplesfan
Reply to  ScottC543
9 months ago

Watching Gronk work his routes and ball handling, and use his great big body to advantage is just plain football fun to watch.

Gronk’s unique style of play reminds me of back in the day when Mike Alstott played. He was so unique in the way he out physicalled not just the linebackers but also big defensive linemen as the “A Train”. He knew just how to lower his center of gravity and become nearly unstoppable, especially late in the fourth quarter to put games away.

ScottC543
Reply to  Naplesfan
9 months ago

Or in a two yard touchdown run where he is hit by 8 defenders but still gets in.

Last edited 9 months ago by ScottC543
DT25
9 months ago

All really good analysis, as always. Good to see Gronk finally getting involved in an offense that has been devoid of TE usage for a long time. Not sure why we’ve finally decided to start doing many of the things fans have been clamoring to do with OJ over the past 2 years (splitting him out wide in the red zone, for example), but better late than never. Also good to see Fournette come in and immediately take McCoy’s job as I predicted would (or should) happen last week. Just want to note, though, that the RoJo drop wasn’t likely… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by DT25
Naplesfan
Reply to  DT25
9 months ago

This is a new offense with a bunch of new players on offense… it takes some game play to get them all working in concert … especially this COVID year with a short training camp and no pre-season games to warm up. It is not surprising at all that this team is playing much better offensive ball now than in the first two weeks.

bucballer
9 months ago

Enjoy Buc fans! Some of us have waited many years for a team like this. The best is yet to come.

Naplesfan
Reply to  bucballer
9 months ago

I think we’re all pinching ourselves and wondering if this is a dream? This is actually a bigger surprise than the 2002 championship team .. we sort of expected that sooner or later our stout defense would get us to the Super Bowl and that Gruden could coax our offense into playing complementary football. But frankly, the addition of Tom Brady has been one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” deals. It’s not just TB-12’s play, but he has inspired the entire team including the defense to play far better than they did last… Read more »

drdneast
9 months ago

Jon, I enjoy you breaking down the film and explantions but I have to take a big issue with you in regards to your statement, “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 beg your pardon.
Before training camp started you guys had Tyler Johnson as the third WR and I don’t remember anyone gushing about Scotty Miller except for yours truly.

Michael76
Reply to  drdneast
9 months ago

If you listen to the podcast…. you’d know he was joking (and laughed at the statement). While Jon (like us) could only hear that Scotty was doing well in the offseason… the PR team (like us), have been surprised with how well Scotty has played

Dave
Reply to  drdneast
9 months ago

I was right there with you. I said the Bucs would end up with 5 guys catching 60+ balls(Evans, Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and OJ). Would have nailed that if OJ didn’t get hurt. I’ve been high on Miller all preseason. When Brady comes out and gushes about a WR, he’s doing something right. Because Brady never proactively does that about any young WR. Miller is the real deal and can play

Last edited 9 months ago by Dave
PatrioticChief
Reply to  drdneast
9 months ago

I am pretty sure that was tongue in cheek lol.

Horse
9 months ago

Jon, I love you analysis. I don’t remember all the talk about “laughing at Gronk”. I think some of us thought it would take a few games to get in football pass catching sync.
The mojo right now is good and I hope it stays. I have to give cudo’s to Licht because he deserves it right now.
He’s doing a good job!

PatrioticChief
Reply to  Horse
9 months ago

I mean there were plenty of people calling Gronk and Brady has beens. But it’s also headline lol.

Naplesfan
Reply to  Horse
9 months ago

Don’t you remember when Gronk’s big headline for the week just three weeks ago was his claim that he just came to the Bucs to be a blocker? And so therefore don’t expect much involvement in moving the ball downfield?

That did earn a lot of chuckles and raised eyebrows. Of course, Gronk was just trolling the naysayers and the “he’s all washed up”ers.

Spitfire
9 months ago

Honestly, we knew going into the Raiders game that they had 3 serious receiving threats and Carr had been playing pretty flawlessly. Both David and Dean were right there in their coverage and a perfect throw had to be made to beat them and it was. Our guys aren’t gonna be able to stop every single throw that comes there way (even though we’d love them to). I think they did a great job over all and having a couple get by them is gonna happen. What matters is they keep those catches to a minimum and make the stops… Read more »

PatrioticChief
9 months ago

Gronk is playing through injury and he is still the #4 ranked TE by PFF so far this season. Stud.

Pick6
8 months ago

When Brady trusts Evans like he trusts Gronk……we might be the most untouchable passing game in history. One or both of those dudes will dominate their matchup on every drop back and can even climb over tight coverage.