After earning another ring, the beaten-up 29-year old still could very much decide to call it a career. In a recent ESPN article, opposing defensive coaches said several remarks about Gronkowski’s aging body and athletic traits.
“We didn’t game plan for him, or have any doubles on him. Our plan was to hit him early, stop him early, because he can’t restart anymore if he’s redirected.”
“Everyone has been so afraid to press him, jam him at the line of scrimmage, but that’s easier to do now.”
And perhaps most importantly.
“He’s not at the old level, for sure. He’s not moving the same way, but he can get into space and is still a big body.”
In many ways, those quotes could also be applied toward Jimmy Graham and his first season in Green Bay. It seems hard to envision Graham re-discovering his Pro Bowl self in 2019, but he, like Gronk, remains a player with a big body that can get into space and cause mismatches. Unfortunately, the Packers failed to use these strengths throughout the 2018 season. Once a feared runner in the seams and a red zone nightmare, Graham instead was confined many times to crossing routes over the middle and short sideline out routes. His large frame was rarely used to win 50-50 balls in the end zone and, really, was rarely targeted at all with just eight red zone targets. Eight!
And while watching Gronkowski in the Super Bowl on Sunday did not provide insight into how to fix that specific error, it did shed light on how to use the 32-year old veteran’s size in other creative patterns. Here are two of those examples coming in a critical fourth quarter.
The tight end wheel route
With under 10 minutes to play, New England needed a play to jumpstart a stunted offense and begin a go-ahead drive. The Patriots did just that on first down by involving Gronkowski. Although he is a far better run blocker than Graham and can deceive defenses by lining up in a two-point stance, Gronk was able to hold up Samson Ebukam just enough before shedding away from Ebukam and getting downfield. The wheel route isolated Gronk in space down the right sideline, allowing Tom Brady to place a perfectly-thrown ball in his tight end’s hands with just one step on the defender. Gronkowski may not be the fastest target and Ebukam may have jammed him, but the Patriots’ largest weapon came up with a monumental play.
If Green Bay ever attempted a wheel route with Graham last season, it was not often. However, it could be one of those plays the Packers draw up for third-and-short and other crucial situations. While Graham is not an in-line blocking threat, the Packers could at least use him in that position as a decoy earlier in games to set up the wheel route later on. With his size and ability to run past most linebackers if he gains separation, Graham would be a good fit for the route if Aaron Rodgers can put the ball where he wants it.
The seam from the slot
The seam is a concept many thought the Packers would deploy heavily the moment Graham signed on. And though Green Bay used it occasionally, Rodgers and Graham rarely connected.
After feeding Gronkowski with the wheel route just a few plays earlier, Brady and the Patriots used a two-tight end set for a stretch of several plays to march down the field. With Gronk in the slot, New England ran and passed the ball with ease. And when the Los Angeles defense was at its breaking point, Brady sought out Gronk for a decisive punch. With Julian Edelman providing a distraction by motioning out to the right, Gronkowski took off running down the seam at the snap. Brady didn’t hesitate to throw to his tight end in single coverage, dropping the ball 29 yards downfield into his hands before the safety could arrive. Again, Gronkowski still had just enough speed to beat his solo defender and used his height and length to catch the ball and get his team into the red zone.
In maybe his final game ever as a Patriot, Gronkowski showed us that he’s one of the most dominant forces in the NFL once again. pic.twitter.com/Jj512bG3kj— Young Boston™ (@YoungBostonTM) February 4, 2019
If Gronkowski still has enough to win one-on-one battles down the seam, Graham is at least equally as capable and was effective in that role in New Orleans. Having more of a vertical presence from Graham in 2019 to pair with the second-year receivers would be a dimension Green Bay just did not have enough of last offseason. Seattle also struggled to game plan according to Graham’s strengths, but perhaps Matt LaFleur can help in this regard. Graham does not have the same type of quickness in his route-running that he used to. But neither the wheel route nor the seam require elite athleticism to be successful.
New England’s fourth quarter playcalling not only benefited from a slot weapon like Edelman, it took advantage of Gronkowski’s remaining dominant skills. Green Bay has something to learn in both areas as the offseason truly begins.