Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 15d

How the Patriots adjusted their approach without Rob Gronkowski

TAMPA, Fla. -- With the status of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski uncertain for Thursday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the coaching staff considered multiple scenarios.

“I think Josh [McDaniels] did a great job on that, as he always does. Josh had the game plan ready with or without him,” noted head coach Bill Belichick. “We played a lot of four wide receivers and some other personnel groups probably more than we would have played if Rob had been in the game.

“It’s one of the things Josh does a great job of, having some breadth to the offense with different personnel groups and different people and utilizing different combinations so that, if he needs to move from one to another, he can do that pretty easily. I thought he did a great job of that. I thought he called a great game and did a great job of handling the change of personnel as it evolved this week.”

Meanwhile, on defense, the Patriots adjusted their approach to protect against the big play. While matching cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (on Mike Evans) and Malcolm Butler (on DeSean Jackson) on specific receivers helped settle the game plan down, that shouldn’t be confused with the Patriots playing straight-up man coverage the entire night.

In fact, as CBS analyst Tony Romo said during the broadcast -- and Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said after the game -- the Patriots played plenty of zone.

“They had been playing almost entirely man coverage. We had a feeling they’d make some changes, and they mixed in their zone coverages a lot more tonight,” Koetter said. “They mixed man and zone but gave us a lot of different looks. They dropped eight. They played a lot more two-deep [safeties].”

How the Patriots adjusted their approach without Gronkowski, and on defense, highlights this week’s snap-count analysis:

Offense: 74

Defense: 72

WIDE RECEIVER

Chris Hogan -- 74

Brandin Cooks -- 72

Danny Amendola -- 55

Phillip Dorsett -- 20

As the numbers show, the Patriots played the majority of the game in the three- and four-receiver set, which is a direct result of being without Gronkowski. This a good example of how the team tapped its strength at a different position to account for that void, although the attack seemed to miss Gronkowski most in the red zone.

TIGHT END

Dwayne Allen -- 50

Jacob Hollister -- 8

Cameron Fleming -- 1

Hollister was open on a crossing route on one play when quarterback Tom Brady had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. The tight ends otherwise weren’t targeted in the passing game.

RUNNING BACK

James White -- 35

Mike Gillislee -- 24

Dion Lewis -- 18

This was a season high for Lewis, and he seemed to make the most of his extended chances, finishing with a team-high 53 yards on seven carries (7.6 avg.). Gillislee is running hard and protecting the football and is close to breaking a big one. And what else can be said about White? He’s as dependable as they come.

FULLBACK

James Develin -- 13

This is right around the standard workload for the battering-ram lead blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT Nate Solder -- 74

LG Joe Thuney -- 74

C David Andrews -- 74

RG Shaq Mason -- 74

RT Marcus Cannon -- 74

While the same starting group from 2016 returns, there hasn’t seemed to be the same level of consistency in the unit’s performance this year.

QUARTERBACK

Tom Brady -- 74

He took a few big hits early in the game that seemed to affect him, but afterward he said, “That’s football. I’ll be there next Sunday.”

SAFETY

Patrick Chung -- 72

Devin McCourty -- 72

Duron Harmon -- 63

Jordan Richards -- 11

After a few weeks of playing more of a package-specific role, Chung was back to a full workload and turned in easily his best game of the season. McCourty was all over the field in leading the unit with 11 tackles, and Richards made the most of his time on the field with a few textbook tackles.

CORNERBACK

Stephon Gilmore -- 71

Malcolm Butler -- 71

Jonathan Jones -- 28

Gilmore had his ankle tested before the game, then turned in his best game as a Patriot while matched up against Mike Evans. While Gilmore drew a large crowd of reporters at his locker, a few teammates spoke up in his defense after he had been heavily criticized for his play the prior week.

LINEBACKER

Kyle Van Noy -- 66

Dont’a Hightower -- 62

Elandon Roberts -- 23

Van Noy had his streak of playing every snap this season broken, which was a result, in part, of Hightower seeing some more snaps in the middle. Hightower also aligned on the line of scrimmage at times as an end/outside linebacker.

DEFENSIVE END

Trey Flowers -- 70

Cassius Marsh -- 50

Deatrich Wise Jr. -- 29

Adam Butler -- 18

Geneo Grissom -- 3

Butler was in on a few tackles early, as he is essentially playing a 3-4 defensive end type role. The 50 snaps are a season high for Marsh, who has been with the team just over a month. His development could be a key going forward because it would allow Hightower to play more off-the-line linebacker responsibilities at times.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Malcom Brown -- 42

Lawrence Guy -- 41

With Alan Branch left home as a healthy scratch, the normal three-man rotation in the middle was reduced to two. It seemed both players had trouble shedding blocks at times, which helped open space for the Buccaneers' running game.

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