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Super Bowl XLVI Preview: Part One

Posted on February 02, 2012 by Dan Alper

Gronk will likely be rocking the walking boot right up until Sunday.

Being that this is Super Bowl week, we thought it appropriate to do things a little differently. Our normal preview piece comes in one easily digestible chunk and highlights three key areas for the Patriots in their upcoming game. But since the Patriots are putting in extra work this week, why shouldn’t we? This is the first of five posts to come in which we’ll highlight various crucial elements of Super Bowl XLVI.

It seems appropriate to start out with what may be the Patriots’ biggest question mark heading into Sunday: the health of Rob Gronkowski’s ankle. Thanks to an overly chatty father, who is apparently unfamiliar with the “Patriot Way,” we know that Gronkowski suffered a high ankle sprain at the hands of Patriot killer Bernard Pollard. The national media made a big deal of the revelation, but while it was certainly not taken from the Bill Belichick handbook, was there ever any doubt about what kind of injury Gronkowski had suffered?

All indications are that the big man will play, but the question is how effective can he be? And if he can’t be effective at all, how will the Patriots adapt their offense? According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, the Patriots used two or more TEs on 80% of their snaps, far and away the highest percentage in the league. They also lack a true backup at the position, meaning that replacing Gronkowski would entail more than a simple substitution. Who would take Gronkowski’s snaps? Julian Edelman? Tiquan Underwood? Chad Ochocinco? I’d rather not think about it.

In their first match up against the Giants the Patriots heavily utilized their three TE package. Presumably this was done to keep the Giants’ phenomenal pass rush honest and also because for all of their pass rushing acumen the Giants defensive line is a little undersized, particularly on the interior. The Patriots’ ability to use this package hinged on the health of Sebastian Vollmer, in whose absence Nate Solder is forced to slide in at RT.

Vollmer hasn’t played since that game, and his health is still very much a question mark going into this game. If Vollmer is unable to play, Gronkowski’s blocking ability becomes paramount. While he would seem to be the last player affected by physicality, one has to wonder how Gronkowski will react with lineman falling on and around his ankle when he’s called upon to block. Aaron Hernandez is adequate as a blocker, but the Patriots running game has been highly reliant on Gronkowski’s ability to block down the line of scrimmage and to win one-on-one match ups with defensive linemen.

Gronk's ankle didn't seem to be hurting after the AFC Championship Game.

While the running game is important in slowing the Giants pass rush, this team’s bread and butter is still and will always be the passing game. You can bet that the Giants will be chipping Gronkowski off the line even more than teams typically do. They’ll be testing his ability to cut and get out of breaks, and if he’s unable to quickly recover after being chipped, the heavily timing dependent offense will suffer for it.

If the Giants determine that Gronkowski can be single covered it would allow them to bracket both Hernandez and Wes Welker. Because the Patriots lack an outside-the-numbers threat the Patriots must take advantage of single coverage in the middle of the field whenever possible. The Giants linebacking corps is young and mistake prone. It is New York’s biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball, and the Patriots’ play-action game will be key in attacking them. Even if hobbled, Gronkowski presents a big enough target to expose zone coverage, particularly if the Giants LBs are caught peeking into the backfield.

Gronkowski has arguably been the Patriots’ best player in 2011. Come Sunday his ankle will be shot up with any and all legal remedies available and a nice natural dose of adrenaline, too. And the Patriots will need it.


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