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Protecting Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowki is the Bucs’ Divisional Round X-Factor

Known for big catches and touchdown celebrations, it’s the dirty work that’ll be key for Gronk to take the Bucs to next weekend

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

In their Wild Card win over the Washington Football Team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers asked tight end Rob Gronkowski to stay in to block on eleven (according to Pro Football Focus) of his 55 snaps. Most people wouldn’t think a tight end who’s built his image on touchdowns and celebrations would be looked at to pass protect on twenty percent of his reps in a playoff game, but he was, and he did.

Of those eleven reps, Tom Brady faced pressure on just two of them, and was hit or sacked on none of them. In fact, Gronkowski hasn’t allowed his friend and quarterback to get sacked at all this year.

Jokes were made earlier in 2020 when Gronk was not producing to the level his notoriety would lead most to expect, that he was a ‘blocking tight end’. The future Hall of Fame made the joke himself, and it spread like wild fire.

This all came after just two regular season games after Gronkowski had caught just two passes for eleven yards. Both of those catches came in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, and Gronk was shut-out against the Carolina Panthers in Tampa Bay’s first win of the season.

Two days after proclaiming his status as a blocker, Brady found Gronkowski six times for 48-yards in a road win against the Denver Broncos. Quite a punchline.

Since then, Gronk has had six more games where he produced fifty-yards of offense or more. His highest production came in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The only game he went north of 100-yards receiving in.

Last weekend wasn’t the only time the Bucs asked their star receiving tight end to stay in as a blocker that much. Football Outsiders reports Gronkowski was in on 809 offensive snaps during the 2020 regular season. According to PFF, of those 809 Gronk was either a pass or run blocker on 421, or 52% of the time.

Guess he wasn’t kidding after all.

What drew people to young O.J. Howard is what has made Gronkowski such a fan favorite, and team favorite, during his own career. He can do everything.

Towards the latter part of the year, it seemed the Buccaneers wanted to see more of blocking Gronk, than before.

In their last four games, Tampa Bay has asked Gronkowski to pass block more than in any other four-game stretch in 2020.

Last Saturday, he did more blocking than producing on offense, and it helped Brady stay upright long enough to throw the ball on 40 of his 43 drop backs against Washington.

This weekend is a new game though, and a new opponent. And the Buccaneers have lost to the New Orleans Saints twice already this season.

In those two games combined, Gronk was held in to pass block fewer times than he did against Washington in their one contest of the year.

There are several differences between those Bucs teams of Week 1 and Week 9 infamy of course. There are some similarities as well. Mike Evans wasn’t fully healthy in either of the previous match-ups, in the second of the two match-ups the Bucs had some serious interior offensive line questions, and the team’s running game was far from solidified.

A lot of talk has centered around the Buccaneers seemingly finding themselves on offense more in the final quarter of the year. And perhaps it’s just a coincidence it comes along with Gronkowski taking a bigger role in protecting his quarterback while still remaining a viable option downfield.

If the data tracks though, then this match-up of old rivals is going to be carried heavily on the backs of two of the newest members of the NFC South. And that is why Rob Gronkowski is this weekend’s X-Factor when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round of the 2020 NFL Playoffs.