Stats & Info: Deion Branch

What Rob Gronkowski means to Patriots

February, 1, 2012

Al Bello/Getty ImagesTom Brady and the Patriots' effectiveness in the Super Bowl could ride on Rob Gronkowski's left ankle.

One of the key storylines leading up to the Super Bowl XLVI is the availability of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He was without a walking boot on media day, but it has yet to be seen if he will be 100 percent against the New York Giants on Sunday.

If he isn’t, the Patriots offense might take on a new look.

The Patriots used two or more tight ends on 81 percent of their regular-season plays and have done so on 88 percent of their postseason plays (excluding spikes and kneel-downs). No other team has featured multiple tight ends on a higher percent of plays, and the Patriots don’t have a third tight end on their roster.

If Gronkowski is limited or doesn’t play, that would likely lead to more three-wide receiver sets. Outside of Wes Welker and Deion Branch, the Patriots haven’t had a consistent threat from a third wide receiver this season.

Tom Brady has thrown only 140 of his 681 passes this season with three wide receivers and just one tight end on the field. Although Brady is completing 71 percent of his passes with such personnel on field, he is also throwing an interception about once every 28 attempts, compared to once every 68 attempts with all other personnel groupings.

Less or no Gronkowski could also limit the versatility of Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski has taken 61 percent of his snaps attached to the line of scrimmage. In contrast, Hernandez has taken 66 percent of his snaps and caught 52 of his 90 receptions when split out wide or in the slot. The Patriots may keep Hernandez in more often to compensate, which could lead to fewer mismatches.

If Gronkowski is able to play he may not be at 100 percent, which could limit his performance in areas he normally excels.

Gronkowski finished the regular season with the fourth-most yards after the catch (641), most among tight ends. The only tight end to average more yards after the catch per reception was Brent Celek (7.9 to 7.1).

Of course, the Patriots could opt to base Gronkowski’s playing time on the situation. Only Calvin Johnson has more red zone touchdowns than "Gronk" the past two seasons, and no Patriots receiver has been nearly as effective in the end zone.
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesRedskins quarterback Doug Williams is one of several players whose Super Bowl performance was viewed as surprising, given his statistical history.
We invited those who have friended us on the Stats & Information Facebook page to send us some statistically-oriented questions related to the Super Bowl.

Here are a few that we were able to answer:

Christopher Gachko asks: “Statistically, who had the most surprising performance in Super Bowl history (ie: reg season/career average stats vs. performance in Super Bowl).”

The most statistically-surprising Super Bowl performance may belong to Timmy Smith of the 1987 Washington Redskins.

Smith rushed for a Super Bowl record 204 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos. Smith played just 17 regular season games in his career, amassing 602 yards and just three touchdowns. The Super Bowl was only the seventh game of his NFL career.

At the wide receiver position, the biggest statistical surprise may have been in Super Bowl I, when Max McGee of the 1966 Green Bay Packers had seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

McGee had only four catches that season, not posting more than one in any game. He hadn’t had a game with that many receiving yards since November 1964.

Also of note in one regard is New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, who had 10 catches in Super Bowl XXXVII and 11 his MVP winning performance in Super Bowl XXXIX. Though Branch has had many fine games in his NFL career, he’s only had one other game with at least 10 catches.

The quarterback whose Super Bowl performance was the furthest out of line with everything else he did in his postseason career is Doug Williams, also of the 1987 Redskins. Williams completed 18-of-29 passes for 340 yards and four touchdowns.

In his six other playoff appearances, Williams completed just 36 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

On the negative side, Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon threw a record five interceptions in Super Bowl XXXVII against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite doing so just once in his career. The games came over 12 years apart.

Wade Fuller asks: “Is there any relationship between the distance a team's home stadium is from the location of the Super Bowl and the winner of the game?”

The last six champions have traveled shorter distances to the Super Bowl than the teams they beat.

Historically, there has been a slight edge for the teams who travel a shorter distance, with those teams going 25-20 in the 45 Super Bowls.

The New York Giants traveled roughly 150 fewer miles to Indianapolis than the New England Patriots.

Mike Cook asks: “A post on which regular season stats correlate most strongly with Super Bowl outcome would be interesting. In other words, which is the most useful predictive stat to use for comparing the two teams: total yards, points allowed, yards per passing attempt, turnover margin, etc.”

Defense wins championships and for the most part that has been true. From 1966 to 2005, only two Super Bowl champions (1976 Oakland Raiders, 1983 Los Angeles Raiders) finished outside of the 10 in points allowed.

However, three of the last five champions finished outside the top 10 (2006 Colts, 2007 Giants and 2009 Saints), and this year’s champion will too. The Patriots ranked 15th while the Giants ranked 25th.

John McTigue contributed research to this post

Beware the Pats' "Tiger" personnel

January, 25, 2012
Getty Images/ESPN Stats & Information Roll over each player to see the variety of ways the Patriots utilize their key personnel.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady had a historically-good 2011 season, finishing in the top five in every major passing category, including yards, completions, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns. But as good as the New England Patriots' offense was, it was very predictable as to whom would be on the field, and for good reason.

The Patriots have utilized the same five-man skill-position player combination on 18.2 percent of their offensive snaps, a higher rate than any other playoff team. The personnel combo, consisting of receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead, presents an array of matchup issues for opposing defenses.

Dissecting this a bit further shows the Patriots had Welker, Branch, Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field at the same time for 45.2 percent of all of their offensive snaps this season.

Tom Brady thrives in two-receiver, two-tight end, one-back sets (nicknamed "Tiger" packages in the NFL), and the Patriots take advantage by throwing the ball more than any other team in such formations.

In the regular season Brady had 382 pass attempts out of two-WR, two-TE, one-RB sets; Philip Rivers had the second-most with 223. And due to the enormous number of opportunities, Brady dominated every major passing category.

Opposing defenses have countered New England's Tiger packages with five or more defensive backs 85.1 percent of the time, instead of using their base defenses to combat the heavier personnel.

Gronkowski and Hernandez present formidable receiving threats, so despite the extra pass coverage personnel, Brady posted a 77.7 QBR and 41.1 Points Above Average (the number of points the QB accounted for above how many the league's average QB would be expected to score). In a much smaller sample size (only 71 plays), when defenses kept their base 3-4 or 4-3 alignments on the field Brady's QBR was 12.6 points lower and he recorded only a 3.5 PAA.

This personnel matchup favors the Patriots (statistically), as the New York Giants allowed a league-worst 86.7 QBR to opposing quarterbacks in two-receiver, two-tight end, one-back sets this season. In the New York's Week 9 victory at Foxboro, the Giants held Tom Brady to a 56.3 QBR, his third-lowest mark of the season. But when Brady had his 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB personnel on the field, his QBR was 19.9 points higher.

Broncos-Patriots: clues from Week 15 game

January, 10, 2012

AP Photo/Barry GutierrezTim Tebow runs against the Patriots in a Week 15 matchup, but is met by defensive back
Nate Jones. The Broncos led 16-7 early, but would go on to win 41-23.

After 15 minutes of play in Week 15 in Denver, the Denver Broncos were up 13-7 on the New England Patriots and looked poised to add more with the ball on the New England 15-yard line. Denver had gained 167 rushing yards, the highest single-quarter total of any Patriots opponent in the Belichick era.

After Denver kicked a field goal to make it 16-7, Tom Brady and the Patriots rattled off 27 straight points and finished with a 41-23 victory.

How did the Patriots turn it around, and what can the Broncos take away from that game that may help on Saturday?

What happened

• Denver stopped running. The Broncos ran 20 plays in the first quarter, 14 of which were designed runs (70 percent) with one scramble. Denver ran 38 plays over the last three quarters, 13 of which were designed runs (34.2 percent). Willis McGahee had five rushes for 59 yards in the first quarter, but had just two rushes for 11 yards the rest of the game.

• In that pivotal second quarter, two fumbles and a muffed punt led to 13 New England points, continuing two season-long trends. Only the Lions had more points off takeaways this season than the Patriots (119), and Denver ranked 23rd with 82 points allowed off giveaways.

Tom Brady
• Denver sent at least five pass rushers on 46.3 percent of dropbacks this season, the third-highest rate in the league. But when the Broncos tried to blitz Brady, he made them pay. Brady finished 10-of-12 for 171 yards and a touchdown against five or more rushers. He set season highs for a Denver opponent in yards per attempt (14.3) and completion percentage (83.3) against extra pressure.

• Denver made a concerted effort to take Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski out of the passing game, and they combined for just eight catches and 94 yards. However, Aaron Hernandez posted career highs in receptions (nine) and yards (129).

• In the second half, Tim Tebow and the Broncos couldn’t move the ball. He completed only six of his 14 passes in the second half, and the Patriots mixed their pressure well. Twelve of Tebow’s 21 dropbacks came against extra pressure, and the Patriots had four sacks in the second half.

What Denver can do

• Run the ball. The Patriots moved from an even-spaced front (offensive tackles and centers uncovered, a traditional 4-3 look) to an odd-spaced look similar to a 3-4 defense, and had success stopping the run. Anticipating both fronts from New England will be important in preparing their running game.

• Pressure Brady with a standard rush. New England was the only team with four 700-yard receivers (Gronkowski, Welker, Hernandez and Deion Branch), and committing extra defenders to the pass rush will make it easier for Brady to find one of them. The last three teams to beat Brady in the playoffs (2007 Giants, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets) all found ways to pressure Brady with four or fewer pass rushers.

• Stay in the pocket. Tebow was 9-for-14 against the Patriots inside the pocket in Week 15 for 152 yards, averaging 10.9 yards per attempt. New England had significant success when Tebow took off outside the pocket, especially against extra pressure. Tebow didn’t complete any of his five attempts outside the pocket when New England sent added pressure.

Deion Branch puts up Moss-like numbers

October, 19, 2010
Deion Branch
Deion Branch -- in his return to the New England Patriots -- caught nine passes for 98 yards and a score in an overtime win over Baltimore. In his four games with the Patriots before being traded to Minnesota, WR Randy Moss caught nine passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns.

A new spin on the San Diego Chargers’ latest slow start: For those who like to look at schedules and forecast wins and losses before the season even starts, San Diego’s four losses have comes to the Kansas City Chiefs (4-12), Seattle Seahawks (5-11), Oakland Raiders (5-11) and St. Louis Rams (1-15), who combined for a 15-49 record in 2009 and owned the fifth, sixth, eighth and first picks in the 2010 NFL Draft, respectively.

Aaron Rodgers
The Green Bay Packers' defense needs to up its act if Mike McCarthy's team can't figure out a way to establish a running game. Right now, QB Aaron Rodgers leads the team with 10 TD passes but also has three of the club's five rushing touchdowns.

Perhaps the most interesting number to come from QB Ben Roethlisberger’s first game of the season -- he wasn’t sacked in 27 passing plays. He had been sacked more than three times per game over the last four seasons.

The Atlanta Falcons may be one of the NFC’s best teams but there’s one thing they obviously fear: the state of Pennsylvania. Atlanta’s only two losses this season have come at Pittsburgh and at Philadelphia.

Those waiting for the Chiefs to complete their fall to Earth following that 3-0 start may have seen glimpses at Houston. After playing very solid defense in their first four games, Kansas City allowed 21 fourth-quarter points (more than they gave up in any game the first four contests) and a total of 35 in the loss to the Texans.

For the first time all season, we saw the New Orleans Saints of 2009. Last season they ran the ball on 45.3 percent of their plays, but it was down to just 35.9 percent through the first five games this season. On Sunday, they ran 32 times and threw 32 times.