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Life After Gronk

The Patriots have been able to survive the loss of their superstar tight end, but a cupcake schedule has masked their unimpressive pass defense. What happens once New England finally plays against a top quarterback?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After Week 10, it looked like two questions were going to define New England’s season: Could the offense still function without Rob Gronkowski? And could the defense ever figure out how to stop the pass?

Not only had the Patriots just surrendered 348 passing yards and three touchdowns to Russell Wilson en route to a 31–24 home loss to Seattle, but a hit from Earl Thomas knocked Gronkowski out for the following week’s game against San Francisco. At the very least, the team’s ceiling suddenly felt drastically lower.

Well, five weeks later, Gronkowski has been ruled out for the year, but New England is 12–2 and sitting atop the AFC after a 16–3 revenge win over the defending champs in Denver last weekend. The Patriots have already clinched their 13th division title in 14 years and guaranteed themselves, at worst, a first-round bye. We’ve seen this movie before, and it usually ends with the Patriots lifting the Lombardi Trophy (or almost lifting the Lombardi Trophy — before getting upset by the Giants).

Except, don’t book your tickets to Houston just yet, Pats fans. One of those questions has yet to be answered with a “yes” — and it’s not the one about replacing a Hall of Fame–level tight end.

Thanks to Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, we really didn’t get a glimpse of the Patriots offense until Week 5, when the QB, Gronkowski, and Martellus Bennett were all on the field together for the first time. From weeks 5 to 10, that trio laid waste to opposing defenses; Brady completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,635 yards (327 per game), threw 12 touchdowns against just one interception, averaged 9.85 yards per pass attempt, and compiled a 125.5 rating. Over that stretch, the Patriots averaged 32 points (second most in the NFL) and 6.5 yards per play (fourth).

After the offseason trade for Bennett, the Patriots offense was designed to run through its two tight ends — a return to the style we hadn’t seen since the downfall of Aaron Hernandez. Most passing attacks run through their receivers and utilize tight ends as secondary receiving threats, but not New England’s. Over those five games, Gronk and Bennett saw a combined 60 targets, catching 47 passes for 786 yards and six touchdowns. Julian Edelman was the designated underneath option, and he caught 29 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown. Chris Hogan was the designated deep threat, and he caught 11 of his 15 targets for 269 yards and a score. And running back James White complemented all that with 20 catches for 188 yards and three touchdowns out of the backfield. The New England rush attack didn’t do much other than pick up first downs in short yardage and punch the ball into the end zone — but with a passing game like that, it didn’t matter.

Then, when Gronk got hurt, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t try to replace him. Instead, they just totally revamped their offense.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Now, tight ends are an afterthought, and the passing game is more conventional. Bennett has caught just 12 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in the past five games. Edelman has returned to his familiar role as Brady’s no. 1 option, catching passes on 37 of 67 targets for 409 yards and a score. Behind him, New England has leaned on its running backs in the passing game, with White and Dion Lewis, who recently returned from injury, combining for 34 catches for 293 yards and a touchdown. Malcolm Mitchell has emerged as another option, catching 22 balls for 277 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. (He had just three catches for 20 yards on six targets in the five games after Brady returned and before Gronk got hurt.) The only guy whose role has remained relatively constant is Hogan, who has 14 catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns in that stretch.

Without Gronk, Brady has fallen back toward earth, but he’s still been one of the best quarterbacks in football. In the past five games, he’s completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,429 yards (285.8 per game), thrown 10 touchdowns and one interception, and compiled a 96.9 passer rating and thrown for 6.94 yards per pass attempt. Keep in mind: This stretch included games against two of the league’s best defenses in the Ravens and Broncos.

As a whole, New England’s offense has averaged 24.8 points per game and 5.7 yards per play since Gronkowski went down. While the passing game has slowed, the offensive line has kept Brady upright (they’ve surrendered just four sacks since Week 10), and the ground game has picked up some of the slack, averaging 125.2 yards per game at 4.32 yards per carry. And although the offense looks different, it remains pretty matchup proof: Whether the Patriots are facing a suffocating run defense or an unparalleled pass defense, they’ve shown the ability to change their game plan and execute it accordingly.

Just look at the past two weeks: Against Baltimore’s elite run defense (which came into that week surrendering a league-low 3.41 yards per carry and 74 yards per game), the Patriots leaned on their pass attack to score points. Brady threw the ball 38 times for 406 yards and connected with his receivers for three touchdowns, but he did surrender one interception. The next week, against Denver’s elite pass defense (which came into the game surrendering a league-low 183 passing yards and a 67.4 passer rating to opponents), the Patriots leaned on the run, rushing 39 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. They also identified Denver’s linebackers as the vulnerability in the pass defense and looked early and often to White and Lewis out of the backfield. In total, 50 of the Patriots’ 73 plays (68 percent) went through a running back, whether on the ground or through the air.

New England continues to benefit from being one of the most diverse, versatile offenses in the NFL. Hell, they’re even getting fullback James Develin more involved. He played a season-high 43 snaps last Sunday and was instrumental on several run plays with his lead blocking. The Patriots come out with a different game plan every single week, and different playmakers are featured from game to game. They can beat you through the air with finesse, and they can run through you on the ground with power.

On the surface, it looks like New England’s defense is rounding into form at the right time. Denver’s offense isn’t anything to write home about, but going on the road and holding a team to three points is always an accomplishment — and so is leading the NFL in scoring defense 15 weeks into the season. But could it all be a mirage?

The quarterbacks the Patriots have faced off against are about as scattershot and as reliably inept as a squad of Stormtroopers. It features: Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Tyrod Taylor twice, the lethal combination of Charlie Whitehurst and Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones (they dodged playing Ben Roethlisberger that week), Russell Wilson (whom they lost to at home), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, and Trevor Siemian. Their next two games? Fucking Bryce Petty and Matt Moore.

Even the “name” quarterbacks in that group — including Palmer, Flacco, and Dalton — have all had down years. Taylor might lose his job. Wilson’s overall stats this year look more like Teddy Bridgewater’s 2015 season than anyone in Seattle wants to admit. Bottom line, the Patriots have really lucked out. For comparison, the Seahawks, who have the second-best scoring defense, have gone up against Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Brady, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers — and let’s throw in Jameis Winston for good measure. The Giants, third on that list, have faced Dak Prescott twice, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins.

The Patriots have faced the easiest schedule of opposing offenses of any team, and that coinciding with the Deflategate punishment might be the most “ball don’t lie” moment in league history. It’s also allowed New England to take a grapple hold of the AFC’s top seed and the home-field advantage that goes along with it.

So, New England is sitting pretty, but we really have no idea what’ll happen once they’re paired up against an elite passer. And apart from that points-per-game stat, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. They are just 17th in passing yards allowed (248 per game), have given up 19 touchdowns through the air (tied for 11th), and rank 25th in pass defense per DVOA.

It hasn’t been all smoke and mirrors from New England’s defense, though. Their run defense has been really solid. It features a couple of hogs up front in Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, and with Dont’a Hightower patrolling behind them, it’s given up just 88 yards per game (fourth in the league), six touchdowns (tied for second), and ranks fourth per DVOA. With their rush defense and pass defense combined, they rank 19th in the league in overall defensive efficiency.

The pass defense does include some talented individual players too. If you squint, you can picture this group putting together some above-average performances. Safety Devin McCourty was just named to the Pro Bowl and acts as the linchpin for the secondary in the middle of the field. Cornerback Malcolm Butler remains a competitive playmaker on the outside. And a few late-arriving contributors could come up big down the stretch: Trey Flowers has emerged as a huge boost for the pass rush, recording seven sacks in the past seven games. (He’s fifth in the NFL in that stretch, behind Miami’s Cameron Wake, the Giants’ Olivier Vernon, Oakland’s Khalil Mack, and Atlanta’s Vic Beasley.) Shea McClellin has seen his snaps at linebacker increase after the Patriots traded Jamie Collins to the Browns, and Kyle Van Noy (acquired via trade in Week 8) has been effective as he’s seen his playing time gradually increase. The now-key contributors just haven’t played together that much, but if they develop some late-season chemistry, they could be enough against the Carrs, Roethlisbergers, or Mariotas of the world.

Of course, if the chips fall the right way, we may never find out. It’s entirely possible that New England could face some combination of the Texans (Tom Savage), Chiefs (Alex Smith), Ravens (Flacco), and/or the Dolphins (Moore) in the divisional and championship rounds on the way to Houston. More likely, though, the Patriots will have to play against an elite passer and a top-tier offense at some point in order to win the Super Bowl. What will happen when they do? The problem is that until then, we won’t know the answer.