While the Buccaneers’ offense has arguably been the NFL’s best, there have clearly been times when Tom Brady has missed his biggest weapon and best bro, Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk suffered cracked ribs all the back in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams, and a combination of that and back spasms kept the massive tight end on the sidelines until last week against the New York Giants.
While he didn’t necessarily look dominant like he did in the first two games of the year, Gronk still hauled in 6 passes for 71 yards to provide some much-needed balance to the passing game outside of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette. It was honestly a surprise to see him play 59% of the snaps, and that number should only go up.
While Cam Brate is a serviceable target and fills in whenever he’s asked, Gronk’s sheer physical dominance is near-impossible to replicate, not to mention his baked-in chemistry with Brady. As the season nears its final stretch, the Bucs will need that element to create counter strategies against the better defenses they’ll face.
It's nice to see Gronk back to dragging defenders again.pic.twitter.com/fHb6u2KVDY— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 23, 2021
One of those major tests will come Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, who’ve rebounded from an awful start to gallop back to a winning record at 6-5. Their offense has been driven by Jonathan Taylor, as the second-year player as been on an absolute tear as of late — a five-touchdown day against the Buffalo Bills serves as apex.
Fans will rightfully focus on that matchup with Tampa’s top-ranked run defense, and it will likely go a long way in determining the result. But perhaps a less-discussed point is Indy’s improved defense.
They place a heavy emphasis on preventing big plays via a lot of cover 2 shells in the secondary, and that approach has stymied Tampa at times without Gronk as a serious threat to complement the outside targets.
The #GoBucs are able to attack Cover 2 with WR/TE route schemes that bait Zone defenders and create voids for QB Tom Brady to exploit in the pass game. Here, @GregCosell shows Brady making rhythm throws from earlier film in the season. #NFL @MattBowen41 | @JennaLaineESPN pic.twitter.com/6r0CWDM7j7— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 26, 2021
Add in the fact that Indy can disguise coverages well, which makes pre-snap processing hard on most quarterbacks, and this game could be more frustrating than the raw pass defense statistics might suggest (the Colts have allowed the most passing TDs thus far. They also sport a strong defensive line and Tampa will likely be without Ali Marpet due to an oblique strain.
That said, Indy has gotten wrecked by opposing tight ends this year, having allowed nearly 700 passing yards alone to the position. Having Gronk as a reliable intermediate option and hot route safety valve could come in handy more than once.
Forcing their attention to him will make running the ball easier — his excellent blocking will also help in that endeavor. Additionally, it will create more opportunities for Evans and Godwin to win 1 on 1s, which they should be able to do against a middle-of-the-road secondary. Brate and O.J. Howard will still get some run as well, which only helps to keep the passing attack diverse and difficult to stay ahead of.
As Tampa looks to stretch its winning streak to 2 following those prior ugly losses, its top tight end should help to fill the void this offense has perilously tip-toed around, one Gronk spike at a time.