Tom Gower

Tom Gower has written about the NFL and its numbers for Football Outsiders since 2009.

Solving Gronk

The Super Bowl presents several interesting matchups. Of those, the most intriguing is probably how the Seattle Seahawks will defend Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is the NFL’s best tight end, an unparalleled combination of superb blocker and dangerous receiver.

Like any team facing a hybrid tight end, one of the key questions Seattle must answer is how it chooses to match up to Gronkowski. We can look back at the 2012 Patriots-Seahawks game for some clues about their likely tactics.

Seattle has shown some vulnerability against opposing tight ends this year, so how the Seahawks play Gronkowski is especially important. How exactly have the Seahawks been vulnerable to opposing tight ends? How does that compare with how the Patriots have used Gronkowski lately? Finally, what might all that mean for Sunday’s game?

The Seahawks vs. Rob Gronkowski in 2012

In a world where teams change players virtually every year, how much can we really learn from a 2012 game? In some respects, not very much. Gronkowski is the only player who will dress for the Super Bowl to have caught a pass from Tom Brady in that 2012 game. Brady’s leading receivers that day were Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Covering Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman instead of Lloyd and Welker may change how Seattle chooses to play Gronkowski. On the other hand, LaFell succeeds in some of the same ways as Lloyd, as Edelman mirrors Welker in some ways.

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What makes that game meaningful is the players who seem most likely to cover Gronkowski also covered him back in 2012. The players who covered Gronkowski on more than one of his ten targets (including one negated by penalty) that game were strong safety Kam Chancellor, plus linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Those were the three Seattle defenders who played every snap against the Packers. They are also the likeliest choices to draw Gronkowski duty come Sunday.

Gronkowski’s usage on his targets that game displayed the expected mix of alignment and routes. He lined up inline, next to an offensive tackle. He aligned on the wing of an offensive tackle. He lined up standing up in the slot. He lined up out wide. All told, he caught 6 passes for 61 yards.

The key challenge for the Patriots’ passing game is to control the short middle of the field. Gronkowski’s routes were often designed with that in mind. His first and longest reception of the game is a good example of how New England can do that. Aligned in the near slot, he ran a skinny post, while Welker, aligned in the slot on the other side of center, ran a short crossing route. The combination is designed to attack middle linebacker Wagner (highlighted in red). If he responds to Gronkowski, Welker will be open. He attacks Welker, and Gronkowski used his inside alignment on deep defender Chancellor to make the catch. Deep safety Thomas brought him down after a gain of 20 yards.


Attacking Wagner like that was not always a successful strategy. Brady tried to find Gronkowski on a similar route in the end zone late in the first half. Wagner’s perfect positioning forced Brady to hold the throw. When Brady did release it, the ball was behind Gronkowski and nearly intercepted by Thomas.


That was Thomas’ second near-interception of a Gronkowski red-zone target. Earlier in the game, he jumped an out route where Wright had primary coverage responsibility.

Like the big first completion, Gronkowski’s big plays typically featured combination routes designed to defeat coverage rather than him winning physical matchups in coverage. His last catch of the game shows this. He is split out wide and is running a simple slant route combined with a flat route from the backfield player. If the Seahawks are playing zone coverage, his inside release should occupy the closest defender and the flat route should convert third-and-2. As indicated, the Seahawks were playing man. Gronkowski released inside on the slant and had an easy conversion with Chancellor playing well off.


How Tight Ends Beat Seattle in 2014

The Seahawks were an excellent pass defense overall. They were especially good against opposing wide receivers but were just average against tight ends in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. However, their losses didn’t always include a big day by the opposing tight end. In their home loss to the Cowboys, Jason Witten only had 24 yards receiving. Gronkowski is a bigger threat than Witten, though. He was the most valuable receiving tight end in the league, and the Seahawks struggled badly with the man who finished behind him.

While the Seahawks were not very efficient against tight ends, they also did not allow them many yards. The average team allowed 50.8 yards per game to tight ends, Seattle only 41.4. Only two tight ends had more than 50 yards in a game against the Seahawks, but both did so with good efficiency. The first, and most notable, was Antonio Gates. In San Diego’s win in Week 2, he caught all seven passes thrown his direction for 96 yards and three touchdowns.

Two of Gates’ touchdowns came from a similar pre-snap look as the last play from the 2012 New England-Seattle game. The tight end and the back are the sole receivers to that side, and the Seahawks have one defender up on the line of scrimmage and another deeper. The alignment is not exactly the same — Gates has more of a minus split, closer to the line of scrimmage. This gives him the necessary room to take an outside release, crucial for this unusual way to run curl-flat. Curl-flat is a staple of NFL playbooks, but a player in Gates’ position is typically running the curl. Instead, he runs the flat and takes it upfield, easily beating Chancellor’s coverage for a score.


Gates’ second score came from the same formation from the same spot on the field. The route combination is slightly different — the running back runs an angle route instead of a curl — but Gates’ route appears to be the same. The near coverage defender — this time, last year’s Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith — takes Gates and grabs him to prevent him from breaking upfield. Gates manages to shake free and adjusts to give Rivers a throwing angle for the TD.


The other tight end to beat the Seahawks was the Eagles’ Zach Ertz, who had 51 yards, including a pass interference penalty. Ertz had his success attacking Seattle’s downfield coverage. His big play was a 35-yard touchdown. It came on a switch concept, where, like Gates’ third score, K.J. Wright was beaten in man coverage.


How Gronkowski Is Winning

The good news for Seattle is Gronkowski has not been that type of downfield threat in the postseason. On throws traveling much more than 15 yards downfield, Gronkowski has one catch in the playoffs while opposing defenders have two interceptions. His only deep catch came when he found a seam in the Ravens’ deep zone. This was not a big change from the regular season. Over 75 percent of his targets came no more than 15 yards downfield. New England may see the success Gates and Ertz had downfield and try to use Gronkowski that way, but that is not how the Patriots have regularly played offense.

Rather, most of Gronkowski’s work has come in route combinations designed to defeat the zone coverages Baltimore and Indianapolis have played. His 23-yard gain in the second quarter against the Ravens demonstrated this. Like his first catch against the Seahawks back in 2012, his route was part of a high-low designed to attack the middle of the field.


The result was a good throwing lane for Brady. Showing off one other thing he does so well, Gronkowski picked up an extra nine yards after the catch.

How Seattle May Defend Gronkowski and Gronkowski May Attack Seattle

The good news for the Seahawks is Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have the size and physicality to match up with Gronkowski one-on-one and come out fairly well. Gronkowski’s lack of deep targets may mean Wright’s vulnerability downfield is not an issue.

If Wagner and Wright do match up with him, and Gronkowski does not win, New England will need to be more creative in its scheming. Given two weeks to prepare, master schemer Bill Belichick should be up for the challenge with alignments and combinations that make it possible for Gronkowski to win. Wagner and Wright (plus Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas), though, are much more experienced than they were 2 1/2 seasons ago. They should do a better job of handling those route combinations and giving their teammates the help they will need in man and zone coverage to shut down Gronkowski.

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    How They Were Built

    The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots present a contrast of styles on the field in many ways. The same is true off the field as well. Their different paths to success show how successful teams can be built in the NFL in more than one way.

    How Seattle Was Built

    When general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle, they began a comprehensive overhaul of the roster. They relentlessly acquired players however they could, evaluated them to see if they were a fit for the team they wanted to build both on the field and off it, and ruthlessly chose which ones they wanted to develop and which ones they were willing to discard.

    Applying that practice meant that when the Seahawks broke through in 2012, they were the youngest team in the league. The 2014 Seahawks are a more mature team, both on the field and in terms of the development cycle of a group of players, but many of the same methods still apply.

    One thing that stands out about the Seahawks was the blank slate Carroll and Schneider acquired. Most franchises are driven by their old successful draft picks. When the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, many of their best, most important players were draft picks who were re-signed after their initial contracts expired. That included their four most prominent defensive players in Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs. The Seahawks only dressed two such players, Kam Chancellor and Max Unger, for the NFC championship game (a third, Brandon Mebane, is on injured reserve).

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    That lack of financial commitments to other players has given the Seahawks room to make other moves. They have used their “extra” money in two ways. First, they have signed several stalwarts to second contracts before they were required to do so. That group includes Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and K.J. Wright. All three could still be playing on their original draft pick contracts, like Thomas’s fellow 2010 first-round selection Russell Okung, but Seattle has already paid all three players. Second, they have gone out and added multiple premium players in free agency. This is often a risky strategy, but the Seahawks handled Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett smartly. Both signed short-term contracts for reasonable sums and were subsequently extended for multiple years for more money.

    Beyond getting a second contract, Chancellor, Mebane, Sherman, Thomas, Wright, Avril, and Bennett have something else in common: all of them play on the defensive side of the ball. That suggests the Seahawks are giving short shrift to the offense. Seattle has spent a little bit of money on the offense, trading for and paying wideout Percy Harvin and giving tight end Zach Miller a big free agent deal. Harvin is now a member of the Jets, though, while Miller has spent most of this season on injured reserve. Outside of the aforementioned Unger and Okung, plus Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks have a particularly inexpensive attack. According to Over The Cap, Seattle currently has over $25 million more in 2015 commitments to its defense than it does to its offense for the same number of players. That total, though, seems very likely to change very soon.

    Russell Wilson’s level of performance and current contract as a third-round pick have made him one of the best values, if not the very best, in the NFL over the past three seasons. The Seahawks reportedly plan to give him a massive extension this offseason. That will balance out their offensive and defensive spending, but will also limit their flexibility and, unless they are careful, make it harder to move on from expensive mistakes like the Harvin contract.

    Paying Wilson in addition to the defenders they have already paid will also make it essential for the Seahawks to keep exploiting the avenue they may have used better than any other team in the league during the Schneider-Carroll era, the undrafted free agent market. The Seahawks pitched their active use of undrafted free agents to players and their agents this past offseason, and their starting lineup for the NFC championship game backed up their claims. All three starting receivers — Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Ricardo Lockett — were acquired as undrafted free agents, as was right tackle Alvin Bailey, who may see time in place of the ailing Justin Britt. Baldwin is now on his second contract (like Sherman, Thomas, and Wright, re-signed before the Seahawks had to do so), but the other players represent essentially found resources getting paid a cheap salary. Schneider’s acumen identified them and Carroll’s competitiveness brought them out, but where potential long franchise runs fall apart is when it comes time to find the next generation of such players. That is much more likely an issue for 2016 and beyond than for 2015, though.

    One avenue Schneider and Carroll used extensively in the past was trading for players. NFL trades are uncommon for a variety of generally good reasons, but last year’s Seahawks Super Bowl squad had four players on it who were acquired via trade. This year’s team, however, has only one player who was originally acquired via trade, Marshawn Lynch. This is more normal for a Super Bowl participant; last year’s foe, Denver, acquired only Champ Bailey via trade, while Anquan Boldin was the only player acquired via trade who was on a 53-man roster for Super Bowl XLVII. The Patriots actually have more players acquired via trade, two.

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    How New England Was Built

    While the Seahawks earned renown for their use of undrafted free agents, the Patriots are also more willing than the average team, particularly the average good team, to give them chances. Bill Belichick churns players for their potential fit on and off the field about as ruthlessly as Schneider and Carroll do, seeing if players who did not work out in another location can work in his scheme. Sometimes, it works out. Championship Game starters Julian Edelman and Ryan Wendell were originally acquired as undrafted free agents before eventually earning second contracts. Belichick is also very aggressive in evaluating non-rookies who may have bounced around the league, and retaining the ones who fit; defensive starters Kyle Arrington and Rob Ninkovich both struggled to find a home as young players before sticking their landings in Foxborough.

    The Patriots do have more money than Seattle tied up in their old drafted players. They have six old draft picks who have been re-signed rather than allowed to depart. While Stephen Gostkowski and Matthew Slater are compensated like the fine special teams players they are, re-signed draft picks account for four of their five largest 2014 cap hits per Over The Cap. The biggest, of course, goes to Tom Brady, while the others belong to Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo (on injured reserve), and Vince Wilfork.

    Comparatively speaking, though, the Patriots are closer to the Seahawks than they are to the Ravens or the 49ers in terms of flexibility to supplement their roster. Like the Seahawks, or the Broncos last year, they delved into the free agent market for key additions. Darrelle Revis is the best-compensated, most valuable, and most prominent. Danny Amendola is their (currently healthy) version of Zach Miller, a player whose impact never matched his dollar figure, but whose disappointing performance they were able to overcome through smart work elsewhere. More valuable at wide receiver has been Brandon LaFell, whose improved performance was part of the offensive rebound following their early struggles. Beyond Revis, their veteran free agency imports on defense include a couple more members of the secondary in ex-Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung, a Patriots draft choice who departed for Philadelphia in free agency before returning.

    Like many teams, and unlike the Seahawks, the Patriots have yet to re-sign any recent draft picks still on their original contracts. That means they have upcoming decisions on players like starting safety Devin McCourty and committee back Shane Vereen. The good news for New England is that they are at least a year away from having to make big decisions on key young defenders like Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Chandler Jones. Like Seattle, they thus seem relatively well-positioned for future success. Their major financial decisions will be in the secondary, including whether to retain McCourty and how to handle Revis, whose 2015 compensation structure practically mandates the Patriots choose to either re-sign or release him. If they can successfully navigate that transition, then New England, like Seattle, should be one of the NFL’s top teams again in 2015.