A week after dropping a sledge hammer on the Cleveland Browns, the New England Patriots delivered another imposing offensive performance against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
Through the first half, Cincinnati’s defense kept Tom Brady and the Patriots in check, holding them to 10 points on four drives.
Then, the most dynamic offense in the league took over. They unleashed a 5-play, 68-yard touchdown drive, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett accounting for all the yards and the touchdown.
They followed that up with another scoring drive, with Gronkowski again accounting for the series’ most explosive play.
At what point does this Patriots offense just become unfair?
With Gronkowski and Bennett, the Patriots now have the NFL’s two most complete tight ends. Both are mismatch nightmares for the defense. Each is equally as good at staying in to block, aligning in the slot or flexing out like a traditional receiver.
Bennett entered Week 6 leading all tight ends in Football Outsiders DYAR metric. And Gronkowski, who was kept under wraps until Week 5, remains a polar bear wearing a football uniform.
In the past two weeks, the pair have combined for 23 receptions, 386 yards and 4 touchdowns.
If you feel like you’ve seen this script from the Patriots before, it’s because you almost have, when Aaron Hernandez was the second piece alongside Gronkowski. But unlike Bennett, Hernandez was a move tight end, one who often played strictly as a receiver or as a fullback. Bennett brings more size, a willingness to block and the ability to play anywhere across the offensive formation.
The willingness (and talent) of both Bennett and Gronkowski as run blockers is what creates chaos for defenses pre-snap. It starts with their personnel groupings: Do they play in base or nickel?
If defenses line up in their base defense they risk exposing linebackers in coverage. If they shift to nickel, they have smaller defensive backs on the field who could be mauled by either Bennett or Gronkowski in the run game.
Brady exacerbates the problem. With the skill sets of Gronkowski and Bennett, the Patriots can run any formation or play in their playbook. Brady is able to survey the defensive personnel and flip to any play he wants from the rolodex of plays in his head.
Brady is as good as any quarterback in NFL history at operating from the line of scrimmage; if a defense has a weakness, he will attack it. With both tight ends on the field, defenses have to gamble on stopping the run or pass, and Brady can switch it up to whatever he feels will be most effective, without needing to change personnel.
The knock-on effects are obvious: they kill teams with the play-action pass, and they can increase the tempo — running any play they want — without the defense being able to substitute.
Using play action is where they will find explosive plays. The Patriots run game hasn’t been good, but it’s good enough (and they’ve used it enough) for defenders to bite on play fakes.
Against the Browns — with Brady back and Gronkowski being fully unleashed — they attacked with play-action shots that got both tight ends challenging the seams.
On Bennett’s third touchdown, they lined up with both tight ends in-line next to each other. And Cleveland matched with its base defense.
As Brady fakes the handoff, Bennett and Gronkowski run delayed releases — faking that they’re staying in to block before releasing on vertical routes.
The linebacker closest to Gronkowski bites on the play-fake, and Bennett beats the cornerback who is covering him. Both of them are wide open down the field with all kinds of room to score.
With no pressure in his face, Brady opts for Bennett, who is able to make a play and score the touchdown.
The play design is so effective because the Browns are forced into gambling against the run. The delayed releases sell the fake, but it’s the quality of both tight ends as run blockers that forces the linebackers to crash downhill, through fear of losing leverage.
Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and the rest of the Patriots staff have built an entire system around generating mismatches that create as many issues for the defense as possible before the snap.
One simple way is using isolated formations with Gronkowski lined up on on one side and all other receivers on the opposite side.
That forces the defense to reveal its hand before the snap. If it double-teams Gronkowski, it leaves every other receiver in 1–on-1 coverage. On the other hand, if it decides to leave Gronkowski in single-coverage, Brady now has his best receiving threat in a 1-on-1 situation on the outside.
The only other alternative for the defense is to drop everyone into zone coverage, where it’s just begging Brady to pick it apart.
Brady had his way against the Browns in Week 5, isolating Gronkowski then going to work on the other side of the field.
Here, Gronkowski lines up with a plus split outside the left numbers. Pre-snap, the Browns show man coverage with safety help over the top.
To reveal the coverage, Brady sends Danny Amendola in motion — if a defensive player follows Amendola its man; if not, its zone.
At the snap, the Browns rotate a safety to bracket Gronkowski, eliminating two defensive players from the play.
Brady works the middle of the field, with Julian Edelman finding a soft spot in the zone coverage to pick up an easy 12-yard completion.
It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but the play was made pre-snap through alignment and motion.
The Patriots got even more creative against the zone-heavy Bengals in Week 6. To create a mismatch, or force two double-teams, they lined up both Gronkowski and Bennett as the widest receivers.
On the first play of the game, both lined up with plus splits. The Bengals are forced into revealing the coverage, with cornerbacks covering each tight end and two safeties staying deep, unloading the box.
Against the weaker box, Brady checks to a run and the Patriots are able to pick up a 10-yard gain.
If the defense is able get into a favorable pre-snap look, Brady is able to shift the entire offense into a different look.
New England utilizes as many condensed formations as any offense in the league, with wide receivers lining up inside the numbers. The tight formations help with the run game, pick plays, horizontal stretch concepts and setting up play-action passes.
With Gronkowski and Bennett able to move all over the offense, they can line up pre-snap with a condensed formation, and are then able to shift and move one or both of the tight ends out wide.
Unlike when a tight end is isolated, shifting gives the defense little time to communicate. That often results in a linebacker being put on a tight end in coverage.
The tactic becomes particularly effective in the red zone: Something the Patriots used to great effect a year ago when they had Scott Chandler in place of Bennett.
The Patriots would use a heavy formation with three tight ends. Defenses would match with a goal line defense that featured linebackers in place of defensive backs.
Before the snap, Brady would shift a third tight end (often Michael Hoomanawanui) to one side of the formation and Gronkowski and Chandler to the other, forcing linebackers to cover them in space. The linebackers couldn’t compete and the Patriots picked up easy touchdowns.
Now, they have Bennett — a more dominant player in every phase — substituted in for Chandler. That opens up more passing concepts and increases their ability to run the ball in the red zone.
Given Brady’s ability to command the game from the neck up, the defense can effectively never be correct. Its only shot is to have a hybrid player or safety who is good enough to match up 1-on-1 in coverage and is stout against the run.
And even if the defense has one hybrid star, they won’t have enough to take away both tight ends, or their ability to create positive matchups for receivers and running backs.
Against the Bengals, running back James White scored 2 receiving touchdowns after being matched up on linebacker Carlos Dansby. The Bengals brought in Dansby to defend against the run, but switched coverage and put a cornerback on Gronkowski if he released downfield. That left Dansby on White, who was too quick to the edge and waltzed into the end zone for two easy scores.
No other offense in the league can throw out the same variety of looks or different kinds of weapons.
The Brady-Gronkowski-Bennett trio have only been together for two weeks. One resulted in Bennett scoring 3 touchdowns and the other saw Gronkowski produce more receiving yards than in any other game in his career.
Under Belichick, the Patriots’ offense has never stopped evolving. The scary thought, for those outside of New England, is this one might be the most dynamic yet.