Of course, the big story surrounding New England's offense is the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski. He's been practicing on a limited basis, but if Gronk can't go at full speed, it's a problem -- he was targeted 15 times (a season high) against New York in Week 9, and caught eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Just as important was the way the Giants reacted to the tight end -- they often shifted their coverages to match him if he moved from inline or went in motion from one side to another. Clearly, he is the focal point for every enemy defense. What Gronkowski can do, even if he can't run and plant and cut at his normal level, is block at a level that no other tight end in the NFL can match.
In the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, Gronk was asked to take Terrell Suggs one-on-one and did that very well. But it was the extent to which he was able to either pull or slide inside and deal with Baltimore's interior pass rush -- specifically that brought by super-tackle Haloti Ngata -- that was so impressive.
A half-healthy Gronk, if he's still able to block at his normal level, would still be almost as valuable as if he was 100 percent, because two of the few carryovers from Super Bowl XLII are these: The Giants still bring furious pressure from the inside (especially with Justin Tuck), and Tom Brady still has trouble dealing with pressure right in his face. We saw far more of Gronk as a receiver than as a blocker the last time he faced the Giants, but that doesn't mean that he couldn't handle Tuck -- it just means that he'd be doing different things in this game.
Actually, don't be surprised if the Patriots do a lot of different things to counteract New York's pass rush and multiple fronts. In Week 9, according to Football Outsiders' game-charting data, the Pats went with six offensive linemen on 13 of their offensive snaps. As the Ravens and Steelers do, New England likes running out of bunch formations, and it'll throw some interesting positional threesomes out there -- you could see BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, or Stevan Ridley running to bunches consisting of a receiver, a tight end, and tackle Nate Solder, who played tight end for two years at Colorado. When I talked to Solder about that versatility on Thursday, he said that he was ready to go wherever Bill Belichick sent him. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see Solder get a goal-line target, Mike Vrabel-style, in this game.
So then, the question becomes, what of Aaron Hernandez?
The Patriots lined Gronkowski's battery mate up as a receiver 104 times in the regular season, but he was targeted just eight times and caught just five passes for 45 yards. Don't be surprised to see Hernandez -- who is probably the Patriots' best deep threat right now -- lined up in more of a flex, a la Dallas Clark, and catching more passes in a role that forces the Giants to stretch out. Hernandez has also been a valuable target coming out of the backfield, but in this game, he might be best utilized as a man who makes the Giants' defense scatter.
Through the Week 9 game, one of the Giants' most interesting defensive concepts was the use of an intermediate spy -- not to watch Brady and see if he ran, but to lurk and wait over the middle against the expected barrage of slants and crosses to Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and the tight ends. Brady's first of two interceptions came against such a concept. Hernandez occasionally ran underneath crossing routes to free things up for Welker upfield, but a series of combo or pick routes downfield involving Hernandez, with Gronkowski blocking to give Brady more time, would certainly make things interesting.
Offensively, formation diversity will be key for Brady and Belichick. The Patriots ran more two-TE sets than any other team in 2011 for obvious reasons, and Brady was obviously successful out of those sets for the most part, but he also threw both picks in Week 9 with Hernandez and Gronkowski on the field. Are the Pats giving things away with their most popular formation? Schemes can be play-calling tells to a degree if you watch enough tape and chart the tendencies.
Regarding one of New England's other favorite formations … the Patriots went with an empty backfield on nine of Brady's passing attempts, and he completed three of nine attempts for 43 yards and a sack. The Giants blitzed on just two of those plays — one was an 11-yard completion to Hernandez in the fourth quarter, and the other was the third-quarter Brady sack. In his own three-wide sets, Brady was 10 of 22 for 142 yards … so maybe both quarterbacks should try a few different formations in the rematch. As we discussed in the Giants' offensive preview, Eli Manning didn't do much against the Pats in his favorite three-wide sets.
One other thing to watch out for is how the Giants choose to cover Welker -- Antrel Rolle was on him a lot on Week 9, and I'd bet Rolle wasn't doing much talking after that game, because Welker beat him like a drum. Rolle has issues changing direction on quick plays in which the receiver cuts inside or out, and Welker caught nine passes for 136 yards in that game.
As Greg Cosell of NFL Films said in our article this week about Tom Brady's schematic brilliance, the Patriots are more of a drive-sustaining offense these days, but the lack of a deep threat has upended them at times through the season. They couldn't beat man coverage across the formation when the Steelers threw it at them, and the Giants were rarely forced to deviate from their spy/zone concepts and deal with man-on-man mismatches down the field.
The Giants have a bunch of good pass defenders, but there are no world-beaters back there -- to a greater or lesser degree from game to game, the Giants' pass defense is a product of their pass rush. And if Gronkowski can help deflect that enough to give Brady time to hit those downfield throws, he might be the game's most valuable player -- even if he doesn't catch a single pass.
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