With a new week approaching, and another Thursday Night snoozer in the books, it’s time to take one final look at the Patriots game against the Cincinnati Bengals. In a game where the Patriots struggled for a long stretch in the first half, we must look at who changed the tide of the game, to be considered for player of the week.
How about Dont’a’ Hightower? Dont’a earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week, in large part due to a timely, game altering safety. Following a Bengals TD and a quick exit for the offense, the Patriots defense was forced back on the field. A holding penalty backed up the Bengals to their own 8 yard line, and on the next play Hightower made his mark. Coming on a delayed blitz up the middle, Hightower got to Andy Dalton and pulled him down for a sack in the endzone. Most weeks this would have earned Dont’a Patriots player of the week. But not this week, not with Rob Gronkowski’s (Gronk) career day on offense.
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With the Patriots getting the ball back with around 7 minutes left in the 3rd quarter and down four points, Brady honed in on his two dynamic tight ends. With only 2 catches for Gronk in the first half, there was an immediate focus on getting Gronk involved.
His first big play came on a crucial 3rd down and 8, on the edge of field goal range. Lined up on the left side of the line, Gronkowski used his rare combination of size, speed and strength to get a step on Bengals cornerback Josh Shaw. With Shaw being the faster player, Gronk used his size and position to gain leverage. Gronk turned towards the center of the field, giving Brady an easy throw. After securing the ball, Gronkowski turned up field, broke a tackle, and moved the ball inside the 5 yard line.
Gronk’s athletic ability was again showcased on the very next play. With the Patriots set up at the 4 yard line it only made sense for Brady to get him the ball again. Gronk starts the play lined up on the right, in the slot. Brady take the snap and looks to his left, then looks back knowing exactly where Gronkowski will be. He delivers a low ball, where only Gronk can make a play. Gronkowski goes down and gets the ball, while Dre Fitzpatrick helplessly tries to break up the pass. The play highlights one of Gronk’s lesser known abilities: his hands. While many big tight ends struggle with tough catches, Gronkowski does not fall into that category, opening him up to an even larger selection of plays and throws from Brady.
The next great play made by the All-Pro tight end happened to be his very next catch (maybe a pattern developing here?). Only a minute after the Patriots last touchdown the offense was back on the field after a quick three and out by the defense. Up by 5 points, the Patriots needed one more score to take a comfortable lead, and start burning the clock. Again, Gronkowski was there to make the play. On the first play, Josh McDaniels lined up Gronkowski on the right side of the offensive line, with Martellus Bennett on the left. Brady starts off by looking at Martellus as he ran down the seam, but soon focused on Gronkowski who was being covered by Vontaze Burfict. While Vonatze Burfict is a good player (though clearly dirty), he does not possess the speed to cover Gronkowski without safety help. To gain separation, Gronkowski ran a out and up move to get behind Burfict enabling Brady to hit him in stride and get a big gain. Two plays later, the Patriots increased their lead to 11 points.
Gronkowski’s next two catches came on a drive midway through the 4th quarter that would turn out to be the proverbial nail in the coffin. The first play was created not only due to Gronk being Gronk, but also due to the play call by Josh McDaniels. The play started with Gronk and Martellus
Bennett lined up next to each other on the right side of the formation. Both players immediately released as Tom Brady perfectly executed the play action to Blount, nearly causing poor old Burfict to fall on his face. Gronk was left wide open down the middle of the field, with the safeties forced to stay deep because of Martellus’s and Edelman’s deep routes. This gave Gronk an area the size of your zip code to operate in, leading to a 29-yard gain. Burfict wasn’t too happy, as he shared a few words with Gronk after the play.
The very next down, both tight ends were again on the field, with Gronk on the left side of the line and Martellus lined up outside of Edelman in the slot. Gronk was given a free release as he ran across the formation, giving Brady an easy completion allowing Gronk to do his business after the catch. With the other linebacker forced to cover Blount as he came out of the backfield, Gronkowski had running room after the catch. Eventually Gronkowski was taken down at the 7 yard line, and as usual Burfict was back up in Gronkowski’s face. The free-spirited Gronk, known to be a character on the field, was called for taunting after some excessive celebrating. While the penalty did not change the outcome, it likely took another Patriots touchdown off the board.
What started out as a slow day for Gronk turned into one of the best performances of his career. With only two first half catches Gronk turned around his own fortunes along with the teams, creating several big plays that helped give the Patriots the win. The final stat line for the day was 7 catches on 9 targets, for 162 yards and a touchdown.
When you dig deeper in the stat sheet, the dominance of Gronkowski becomes even clearer. Compared to fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, Gronkowski averaged more than twice as many yards per catch, and nearly twice as many yards a target. Even when compared to Martellus’s big game against the Browns, Gronkowski still doubled Martellus’s yards per catch.
Even more eye-opening is when you compare Gronk’s production with that of the other great tight ends in the league. Compared to tight ends with over 10 catches on the year, Gronkowski averages 5 more yards per catch than the next best. This equates to 21% more yards a play, a whopping distinction between Gronk’s level and the rest of the league. It is Gronkowski’s utter dominance against the Bengals that makes him this week’s player of the week.
Lets look ahead to this week’s matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is natural to expect that Gronkowski will not repeat his same dominating performance. The Steelers have been far more successful against tight ends this year. They rank in the middle of the league rather than the bottom, unlike the Bengals. Nevertheless, it still appears to be a promising matchup. With Gronk off the injury report for the first time this year, expect him to wreak havoc on a still gelling Steelers defense.