Film Room: How Gronkowski Torched Pittsburgh’s Second Half Hopes

It was going well. Almost too well. And just like that cheesy line uttered in any movie, it’s usually a sign the dam is about to break.

It did. Twice.

After being held to just one catch for 13 yards in the first half, Rob Gronkowski reeled off two catches for 73 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Or really, the course of two drives. One went for a score, the other set up a second one. Both were killers.

CBS did a good job of giving us aerial angles at both plays. And to the best we can, we’ll break down each.

1. Rob Gronkowski’s 36 yard touchdown

I gotta be honest. This one is really difficult to pin down. Have been looking it over for a good hour trying to digest some old playbooks and watch this play a bunch of times. And I’m still not totally there in feeling confident (it’s a relative term as an outsider) about what happened.

It may have looked like Cover 2 initially but it looks more like Cover 6 to me. Cover 6 is a quarter, quarter, halves zone coverage. The quarter defenders are responsible for 1/4 (a quarter) while the half player is obviously responsible for half the field. The fourth DB has flat to the half side, trapping and/or sinking depending on the route combination.


We covered this last year, Keith Butler’s go-to play late in the regular season win against the Denver Broncos. But those were against 2×2 looks. Sunday afternoon, we get a 3×1 set. So the coverage has to be a little different.


From what I can gather, the basic assignments. Four man rush, four deep, three under concept.

LCB Ross Cockrell – Flat responsibility to the backside. Attempt to reroute the receiver inside and sink on the route
FS Mike Mitchell – Deep half. Carry #1 to the backside vertical
RCB Artie Burns – Deep 1/4. Pattern match, read #2 to #1
NCB William Gay – Hook, match up on any in-breaking route from #1
SS Sean Davis – Deep 1/4. Pattern match, read #2 to #1
Dime back Robert Golden – Carry Seam, pass off to safety

I combed through, as I’ve usually tried to do, Dick LeBeau’s old 2002 playbook. He breaks down his Cover 4 principles below.


The “China” call he refers to is basically an “under” call, an alert for the inside defender to stop carrying vertical and take the crosser.

I *think* we’ve seen this call from Butler before. Back in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jordan Matthews caught a 12 yard touchdown. At the time, I incorrectly identified it as Cover 2 (the MIKE turn threw me off) and two people, a former NFL safety and a HS defensive coordinator, correctly called it Cover 6.


There, it appears Lawrence Timmons didn’t do a good job passing off #3 down the seam to the safety and pick up the crossing #2. It gave Matthews the space to out-leverage William Gay and score.


That play helps us understand what happened on the Gronkowski touchdown. Couple of issues.

1. Artie Burns screwed up.

Let’s go back to the Eagles’ game. You can see him drive on #1.


With #2 breaking inside, it’s a fine play to make. There is no vertical threat in his space so he’s driving on the route.

Against the Patriots, he seems to try and do the same thing. You can see him in this stillshot, and you’ll get a better look at the GIF near the end, of him beginning to again drive on #1 as he breaks inside.


The problem here is that #2 isn’t breaking inside either. He’s running vertically, meaning Burns needs to help carry and protect deep. It becomes a “china” call to Gay, Burns needing to pass #1 off to Gay. And Gay correctly matches up on #1.


2. Burns’ mistake may have influenced Sean Davis

Here’s where things get a little tricky for me. Did Burns mistake cause Davis to widen himself and start to carry #1? Davis certainly does widen as Burns tries to recover.


If so, Robert Golden, the man trying to carry Gronkowski down the seam (and maybe pass off to Davis as they bracket coverage), is left on an island.

Golden, either by design or just by mismatch, never is able to get anywhere close to being in-phase with Gronk, and Tom Brady hits him in stride down the seam. Touchdown.


Whew. So let’s try to recap.

It *appears* to be a Cover 6, Artie Burns looked to bite, it may have influenced Sean Davis off his spot, and Golden got stuck in an unfortunate situation.

2. Rob Gronkowski’s 37 yard catch

We’re going to keep things much simpler here. Focus less on scheme and more on technique. Here, it feels obvious that Robert Golden struggled. Which isn’t a shock. It’s not like he’s asked to man up a tight end very often. He’s a safety asking to use corner skills (why I thought Justin Gilbert would play, like, at all).

Here’s Golden rolled up and matched on Gronkowski.


The tight end runs an excellent route, as a guy like Gronk is known to do, stemming outside on his release. It gets Golden to open his hips to the sideline and then be out of position as Gronk stems back inside. Golden ends up punching with the wrong hand and can’t get his hips opened up.


It allows immediate separation and Golden tries to dart back to inside leverage given the look and the stem.


But then Gronkowski breaks one last time, back outside, and Golden is totally lost.


Brady again connects, finds Gronk in space – the vertical concepts clear everything out – and he does the rest, getting down to the Steelers’ five. LeGarrette Blount finished the job the next play.

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