With the exception of Tom Brady, no one on the Patriots is more affected by the loss of All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski than Josh McDaniels. McDaniels' offense had taken off since the midseason return of Gronk, with much of that success predicated off the schematic mismatches having a player of Gronk's caliber brings.
Now, McDaniels will have to make things work without his unit's best player. Having Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola back, two guys who were sidelined for most of the first six Gronkless games, will help, but it's still undeniably a huge challenge for an offense that will have to put up points in order to win. McDaniels talked about the trickle-down effects of losing Gronk during yesterday's presser.
"We’ve experienced playing without him before. I don’t know if we’re better equipped, I’m not exactly sure how to rate that. I just know that any time you lose a player like that or you can’t use a player like that, you need to put your time into a few different things, and other people have to play different roles.I think it's clear they are better equipped to withstand the loss of Gronk now, with Shane Vereen's availability being the main reason why. Vereen's dynamic receiving ability make him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses; he is simply too fast for the linebackers that most team's designate to cover receiving backs. Having a player who can consistently win his matchups and get open quickly is a huge advantage for Tom Brady, especially considering his protection hasn't been as good as past seasons. Gronk was especially missed early on in the season because the Pats didn't have anyone else healthy that could serve as a legitimate "go-to" option. Now that he's finally back on the field, Vereen will fill that void.
You play offense a little differently, and we do have experience doing that. We did it at the beginning of this year for a significant number of weeks, we did it in the offseason, we did it last year during the course of the season as well, so we’ve experienced this before.
I think for that reason, we kind of have an idea of exactly what we need to use and how to kind of formulate our game plan to max out our strengths and try to make up for the loss of a very unique player."
Not only will the Patriots have Vereen back, but the rest of their complimentary weapons are improved from the beginning of the year as well. Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins; all are much better players now thanks to the "trial-by-fire" phase of September. Danny Amendola is available again, giving Brady another weapon capable of going off any given week. Even Josh Boyce and the returning Austin Collie are better backup options should Dobson and Thompkins both remain sidelined this week, as both players are undoubtedly more familiar with the playbook than they were earlier in the year.
All this is well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that defenses will be able to attack them differently without the threat a player like Gronk presents. McDaniels touched on this subject as well with the media.
"You definitely have to anticipate [a change in game plan]. When you have players that can be as productive as Rob has been, some defenses pay a tremendous amount of attention to him and have done that to other players on our team at different times, where they may say they want to try to double him, may say they want to try to jam him or bump him or do different things, and you can tell that that was really their plan going into the game, because it’s obvious that they changed some of the things that you had seen on film to do those things.The extra coverage Gronk draws has certainly been beneficial to the Patriots offense, but the Gronk-effect goes beyond even that. Gronk's presence at tight end presents defense's with a unique challenge: how to be prepared to defend against his pass catching ability while not becoming vulnerable against the run.
When he’s not in there, then certainly they may be more inclined to do more of the things that they’re used to doing, and they don’t necessarily need to account for a player at that position to be such an incredible challenge as you presented."
The Patriots have had a lot of success using Gronkowski to dictate looks and mismatches this way. If teams opt to go nickel to respect the pass, the Patriots turn to a heavy, downhill running game that punishes that mismatch, often running behind the blocking of the best tight end in football. If teams stay in base defense, Gronkowski (and the rest of his teammates) generally have favorable individual matchups for Brady to exploit.
All that goes out the window with Gronk out, as the pass catching abilities of Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui don't exactly inspire the same fear into opposing defenses. The Patriots have actually been a good running team all season, even without Gronk, so they should continue to grind out the tough yards whether it's LeGarrette Blount or Stevan Ridley getting the carries. However, those extended sequences when it seems like the Patriots offense is an unstoppable, perfectly-calibrated football machine? Those days are probably over.
One big factor for the offense is how opposing defenses use the extra personnel that normally would be dedicated to Gronk. If I were an opposing defensive coordinator, I would certainly consider having a safety constantly assigned to "spy" on Shane Vereen. As I've said, Vereen is far too fast for any linebacker in the league to realistically cover, but he won't have the same athletic mismatch against defensive backs. If such a move could reduce Vereen from a near automatic win to a 50/50 proposition, it would drastically weaken a Patriots offense that will rely on Vereen as a go-to guy in key situations now.
Missing Gronk will also allow opposing secondaries to devote more attention to Julian Edelman. The receiver has had a breakout year, but will have to adjust from being arguably a 3rd option behind Gronk and Vereen to likely drawing the full attention of opposing team's top cornerbacks. This is where Danny Amendola could really help, as attention paid to Edelman should open up more favorable matchups for the former Ram.
All things considered, the loss of Gronk shouldn't be a crippling blow to the offense. Between Vereen, Edelman, Amendola, whoever's healthy from the Dobson/Thompkins group and a solid running game, this should still be a solid offense. The question becomes whether "solid" will be good enough to outscore teams, which might be necessary considering the state of the defense.