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Film Room: Gronk factor too much for Bengals’ defense

It’s not easy to stop the best tight end in the history of the NFL, but when the Patriots went full Gronk the Bengals had no answer.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Bengals defense held its own for more than two quarters in New England in Week 6, and only an ill-timed penalty on third and long allowed the Patriots to score a touchdown right before halftime. In the third quarter, after the Patriots defense sacked Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety, Tom Brady took over the game and Cincinnati was never able to come back.

Brady’s best weapon on an offense loaded with talent is of course tight end Rob Gronkowski, who might be the best ever at the position and showed again on Sunday why he’s a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. He not only went for a career-high 162 receiving yards on only seven catches and a score, he opened up the field for satellite back, James White, who added eight catches for 47 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bengals knew Gronk was coming but failed to make any adjustment when the Pats increased his use. In fact, in the first half, Brady only threw his way a few times. One was a broken play on third and long where the Arizona product beat linebacker Karlos Dansby when Brady had nowhere to go. The key moment though, was a play that the Patriots would use a lot more later on:

As you can see, with the Bengals playing Cover 3, Dre Kirkpatrick is responsible for the bottom flat. Gronkowski is the only receiver on that side. Kirkpatrick stayed a bit on Gronk, trying to force Brady to look other way. That freed up White to gain seven yards on a flat route.

New England was having trouble moving the ball with Cincinnati’s front four doing a good job getting to the quarterback, but Gronk wasn’t much of a factor. He had a third down conversion on their second drive, beating his man after a play action fake. That was also troublesome for the Bengals in the second half.

After Kirkpatrick’s penalty though, the Pats went back to Gronk, making the Bengals choose. Either get beat on single coverage by Gronk, or double him and get beat by White.

Cincinnati was showing Cover 2, but it was really a Cover 3 defense with Kirkpatrick taking the deep third to the left and Dansby responsible for the flat. Both players stay on Gronkowski, again only receiver on that side of the field, allowing the running back a free path to the end zone.

Dansby’s eyes are on White at all times, so it’s not like he blew his assignment. He was just too slow and also too busy trying to take the quick pass to Gronk away while Kirkpatrick took his spot further behind that the running back was wide, wide open.

On my list of key Patriots players to watch for the game I had tight end Martellus Bennett just because doubling Gronk for most of the game could free him to destroy Shawn Williams or Josh Shaw, but it’s fair to say it was White who was the biggest beneficiary of this effect.

On a side note the Bengals’ defense also made some unforced mistakes as this blown coverage allowed Bennett to gain 24 yards.

Nickel corner Josh Shaw saw a chance to make a play and abandoned Bennett straight away, giving Brady a clean target down the seam. Playing against New England you just can’t have this kind of error, because Brady will make you pay.

Shaw was picked on by the Patriots a couple of plays later as he gave up 38 yards to Gronkowski after failing to stick with him. There’s no way Shaw has nearly the size required to match up well against a guy like Gronk.

After having success with the Gronk-White combo late in the first quarter, the Pats pulled the same play near the goalline in the third quarter. This time the Bengals played Cover 3 straight away and Shawn Williams stayed with White. But that meant Gronk had the one-on-one matchup he rarely loses, ever.

It was a great low throw by Brady and a neat catch by Gronkowski, but the Patriots went again to the same play and still beat Cincinnati’s defense.

You can’t only single out Dansby for failing to slow down Gronk, as Vontaze Burfict, among others, had a costly error in coverage, surrendering to the Patriots’ tight end 38 yards. That completion put New England in perfect position to score and make it a two possession game after the Bengals had gone three and out in their previous drive.

The icing on the cake was provided a few plays later when Brady again passed to White on a flat route to the right for the touchdown.

This time, it is just Dansby being too slow to recover from showing that he was covering the middle while Burfict blitzed. It is fair to wonder if the double a gap blitz and its variations that the Bengals defense runs so often are putting unnecessary pressure on their linebackers as Joe Goodberry suggested on ESPN1530 on Monday, given the lack of athleticism at the position.

On the last play, Gronk gained 12 yards before losing 15 due to a taunting penalty. It was not the same design we’ve seen above but had the same effect. Gronk ran a slant route off of the line while White stretched the Bengals linebackers with a swing route. Dansby didn’t wait and that opened the field for Gronk. The New York native is faster than any linebacker on the Bengals roster and it showed.

I am not sure how you defend Rob Gronkowski but the Bengals couldn’t slow down the Patriots offense after they figured out he was the key to dismantle Cincinnati’s defense.

Cincinnati showed some improvement on the defensive line and Rey Maualuga went back to a smaller role, but the defense has some big flaws that other teams, smart teams, are going to attack frequently.