Patriots

Saints know they have to keep eye on Gronkowski despite quiet Week 1

Saints know they have to keep eye on Gronkowski despite quiet Week 1

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski is one of the NFL’s biggest matchup nightmares, a human version of Pennywise the Clown, the child-eating monster from the box office smash “It”. (Have you seen that movie? Or the trailers? Pennywise scares the bejesus out of me.) Gronk is almost as scary, terrorizing defensive coordinators, safeties and linebackers for the better part of the decade.

But last Thursday night, he ran into a Kansas City defense hell bent on neutralizing him. That’s just what they did.

Gronk was targeted just four times in the 42-27 loss, catching a pair of passes for 33 yards and no scores. 

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“We just weren’t clicking,” Gronkowski said following the defeat. “It starts with me. Gotta get open more. You’ve gotta get better separation. Make some plays. Get the offense rolling. Just wasn’t going to happen.”

It wasn’t, but there have been plenty of times where Gronkowski has been the focal point of a defense and still produced. Just go back to the last time the Pats and Chiefs met in the playoffs back in 2015. The big fella feasted for 83 yards on 7 catches and twice took ‘em to the house. On one of those in particular, Gronk embarrassed safety Eric Berry, making the kind of move that leads all the sports shows. That wasn’t the case to open 2017. Berry is an All-Pro, and he played like one before exiting the game late with a torn Achilles tendon.

Now despite Berry’s skill and playing strength, it was still surprising to see Gronk essentially get erased by one defender. That’s not to say he only saw single coverage, especially in the red zone. There, Gronk drew multiple defenders, including in the third quarter when the Chiefs passed him from one guy to the next to next. You figure with three players locked in on the tight end, someone else would come free. But the Pats receivers had a severe case of separation anxiety. Chris Hogan was blanketed. Brandin Cooks as well. The underneath routes were covered. It was just that kind of night, a night where despite 27 points, the other side made an efficient offense look spotty. 

In theory, there should be significantly more room against New Orleans Sunday. The Saints defense has been a hot mess for years now, with head coach Sean Payton cycling through defensive coordinators the way a fat guy cycles through sweat pants. A year ago, their safeties were in the bottom half of the league in coverage stats according to the analytics web site Pro Football Focus. They cast aside Jairus Byrd and replaced him with Marcus Williams. Kenny Vaccaro is a holdover, as is Vonn Bell. Payton saw the Chiefs film. If he thinks Gronk is human now, the Saints boss isn’t acknowledging that publicly.

“You have to find him first,” said Payton. “He lines up everywhere. He is outside, he is inside, he is in-line. I think his versatility is one of his biggest assets. He’s a guy that can play in the running game, just as well in protection, just as well as a receiver. So that flexibility and versatility does not make him one-dimensional. He is a big target and he has strong hands in traffic. The location throws that Tom (Brady) does a great job with become challenging in regards to how you defend.”

That ability to line up anywhere, and hurt you from anywhere should -- in theory -- make life easier for the rest of the offense.

“I think that they do a great job of moving him around to these different spots.,” added Payton. “Often times you get a pre-snap man or zone read based on who goes outside to cover him. If there is a receiver in the slot and Gronkowski is outside and you see a big go out there, safety or linebacker, it is probably man. There are a number of things you have to look closely at and watch on the tape. It used to be that you would find those tight ends next to the tackle and then one day [Kellen] Winslow stood up in a two-point stance and it was like the solar eclipse. Then someone said, why don’t we put [Shannon] Sharpe outside of [Ed] McCaffrey in Denver and that was like we split the atom and pretty soon they’re everywhere.”

Everywhere yes, but there’s only one Gronk. The Pats need to find that player again to get back into the win column and help mitigate the loss the Julian Edelman (season) and likely Danny Amendola (concussion/knee).

“When he’s out there for us, he’s obviously someone they have to pay attention to,” said Tom Brady. “He can get a lot of other guys open just by his presence out there. I love playing with him. I mean, he’s really a one-of-a-kind type of player. He’s had so much production, and I’m sure he’ll be fired up and ready to go this weekend."

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Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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