Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are the most productive quarterback-tight end duo in NFL history. They have the fifth-most touchdown connections of any two players in NFL history. Gronkowski himself holds the record for most touchdowns in a single season by a tight end with 17. If I were to run down all the passing accolades this guy has, this article would be a novel and no one has the patience for that right now.
That's why, when Gronk exclaimed this week in his media availability, "I'm here to block, baby!" I wasn't buying it. Not even close.
Sure enough, Gronk was targeted seven times in Denver and caught six of them from his BFF. It's almost as if Gronkowski was trolling us the whole time – which I think makes all of this absurdity even better.
But here's the thing. While Gronk is definitely not a blocking tight end, he's not not a blocking tight end either. While it took until Week Three for any substantial stats to show up on the stat sheet, Gronkowski was still playing a vital role in this offense. The Bucs had their first 100-yard rusher in just the second game of the season. It took them until the last game of 2019 to do that. And that doesn't happen without some great blocking for the backs, of which Gronk was a part of.
Getting back to this past weekend against the Broncos, not only did Gronk get more involved in the passing game, but he did it while remaining an effective blocker. He really is perhaps the most complete tight end in NFL history. And I've got two sets of back-to-back plays to showcase it.
Let's take a closer look.
1st & 10 at TB 28 (8:56)
Gronkowski wasn't the only tight end to get involved in the passing game against the Broncos. O.J. Howard was actually the first on the board with this five-yard catch on the Bucs' second drive of the game. But in the spirit of Rob Gronkowski: blocking tight end extraordinaire, let's see how he peripherally helps out the play.
The Bucs are obviously in 12 personnel, with both Howard and Gronkowski to the right side of the formation. Gronkowski is flush with the line and Howard is a step back. Both have a hand in the dirt, which can sometimes fool a defender into thinking they're staying in to block. Tampa Bay further sells this with running back Ronald Jones in the backfield lined up behind Brady who is under center. It ends up being play action with Brady faking the handoff to Jones and then scanning the field. At this point, Howard hasn't even taken his attention off his defender. He eventually opens up to Brady for the checkdown pass and makes the catch. He turns up field and is able to nab five yards on first down.
But watch Gronkowski. He's aligned wider than the Broncos' widest interior defender, here aligned as a 5-tech. Gronk then takes on that interior defensive lineman head on, while Howard initially gets the attention of the Denver outside linebacker. Gronkowski holds his man and had Brady handed the ball off to Jones, would have given him a heck of a running lane. It was enough to sell the outside linebacker who was initially engaged with Howard and divert his attention away to allow Howard space and separation to make the catch.
2nd & 5 at TB 33 (8:14)
But ok, ok, you came here to see Gronk catch some passes. And sure enough, one play later, Gronk had his first of six catches on the day.
Gronkowski is to the left side of the formation and is the only tight end on the field as the Bucs trot out Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller. The Broncos have three down lineman in an odd front with a stand-up rusher on the right side. Jones is in the backfield to Brady's right with Brady in the shotgun.
On the snap. Jones takes off and takes that stand-up defender with him. One of Denver's inside linebackers comes in with the three interior linemen but right guard Alex Cappa picks him up while the rest of the line holds up. In the meantime, Gronkowski runs a slant inside to the opposite hash, beating his defender (a linebacker) that's been assigned to cover him. The catch is an easy one and results in a nine-yard gain. First down. Who said Gronkowski can't beat defenders with a little bit of burst?
2nd & 6 at TB 29
Still not quite convinced of Gronk's all-around skill? These next back-to-back plays may be the perfect encapsulation of his skillset. The first drive of the third quarter and the Bucs have gotten four yards from running back Leonard Fournette on first down. Well, they'll go to him again on second down where he gets another four and Gronk is a big reason why.
The Bucs are in 11 personnel with Evans and Miller in a stacked formation to Brady's right. He's in the shotgun flanked by Fournette, who is also to his right. Meanwhile, Gronkowski is tight to the line on the left side and Godwin split out below the numbers on his own. That's for context because we're looking at the end zone angle to fully see how Gronk helps this play. Watch him manhandle the Denver linebacker as right guard Alex Cappa pulls all the way over behind him to pick up the outside linebacker and create an excellent lane for Fournette.
3rd & 2 at TB 33
Then, on the very next play, we get receiver Gronk. Not only does he convert another third down for the Bucs, but gets them 10 yards. It was set up absolutely perfectly by the previous play. Essentially, the Denver defense doesn't account for him. Or at least, they don't do it well.
The Bucs are set up in 11 personnel. Godwin initially starts on the numbers before motioning inside Miller who's in the slot to Brady's right. Brady's again in the shotgun with Fournette to his left this time. Evans is inside the numbers, mirroring Miller on the other side. Gronk is attached on the right side and the outside linebacker to his side is rushing – blowing right past Gronk as he releases into his route. It's just a straight slant. The middle linebacker is a little delayed, partially due to his reaction and partially due to Godwin running a dig right in front of him. By the time he realizes Gronk is wide open ad is getting the ball, he's still on the hash. It's then the safety that bails out, initially coming over to help the corner with Miller, who ends up forcing Gronk out of bounds. But he proved one thing that will keep setting him up throughout the season: you have to respect Gronk as a receiver, because if you leave him unaccounted for – he will burn you.