Where is Rob Gronkowski? How Gronk's blocking, Cameron Brate's receiving give Bucs perfect TE combo

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Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to play with Tom Brady on the Buccaneers. That decision, the duo hoped, could have Super Bowl-deciding implications.

Now the pair is just a win shy of getting another ring together, the first for both away from the Patriots. In a lot of ways, Brady has been his same self, throwing for 40 touchdowns during the regular season and guiding a less-experienced bunch to the precipice of glory. Gronkowski, though, has only two catches in the postseason after 45 in the regular season. There've been a lot less "Gronk spikes" than may have been expected.

That's exactly by design. Gronkowski can still be a dangerous red-zone receiver, but he wasn't brought to Tampa Bay to dominate the receiving game. The Buccaneers already had the pass-catchers for that, including another tight end: Cameron Brate. Even with O.J. Howard out for the season, the Buccaneers have provided Brady with an ideal tight end combination, just maybe not split up as some would have pictured — Gronkowski the pass blocker, Brate the situational receiver.

Together, Gronkowski and Brate could help determine the outcome of Super Bowl 55. Here's how.

MORE: Get to know the Gronkowski family

Rob Gronkowski's blocking

Gronkowski admitted it early in the season: "I'm a blocking tight end. I came here to block, baby."

That may have been said partially tongue in cheek, as Gronkowski went out and had a few of his best receiving weeks of the season after those comments. But his usage with the Buccaneers has been heavily matchup-dependent.

Brady's been a vastly different quarterback this season when facing pressure. Given a clean pocket, Brady's completed 71 percent of his passes. But get pressure on the 43-year old quarterback and his completion percentage drops, fittingly, to 43 percent. 

That's where Gronkowski comes in. Tampa Bay has a solid offensive line, but supplementing it with a sixth blocker who happens to be one of the best blocking tight ends in football makes it that much better. Brady once called Gronkowski "one of the most dominant blocking tight ends in the league."

Faced with Chase Young in the first round of the playoffs, then Cameron Jordan of the Saints and Za'Darius and Preston Smith of the Packers, Gronkowski assisted as a blocker frequently. Brady was sacked a total of five times across those three games. Gronkowski's also great in run blocking, as shown on this Leonard Fournette TD run:

According to Rotowire, Gronkowski blocked on about 23 percent of pass plays this season, the highest rate among Tampa Bay tight ends. Anecdotally, it's seemed even higher than that during the Buccaneers' postseason run. 

But that shouldn't be shocking, because Gronkowski told us all the truth. The Buccaneers' path to the Super Bowl has been behind Gronkowski's blocking, sometimes literally. 

Cameron Brate's receiving

Brate's been the antithesis of Gronkowski usage-wise, running pass routes on 88 percent of pass plays, the highest rate among Tampa Bay tight ends. Despite that, his 16 postseason targets and 11 playoff catches may have taken some by surprise.

After all, Brate went undrafted out of Harvard in 2014. He's basically spent his entire career as a backup. In 2016, he caught 57 passes for 660 yards and eight touchdowns, but that's as good as it's gotten. He's not a future Hall of Famer like Gronkowski.

Even during the regular season in 2020, Brate caught less than two passes per game. But his usage as almost always a route-runner and not a blocker on pass plays points to Tampa Bay's belief in him as a receiver. It's just had to be called on more now that Gronkowski is staying in to block.

Make no mistake — Brate is a good receiver. He had four catches for 80 yards against Washington and another four for 50 yards against New Orleans. One of his three catches for 19 yards in the NFC title game went for a touchdown. 

Brate actually was a Gronkowski fan while at Harvard, according to the Boston Globe. Now, he's teaming with Gronkowski to catch passes from the widely regarded G.O.A.T., Brady. 

“The first time we actually threw with (Brady), I was definitely star-struck,” Brate said. “As soon as we got to throwing and talking football, it was very natural. He’s just got a great demeanor about him, the way he leads, the way he talks about the game, it’s very easy to understand in that regard.”

How Buccaneers' tight ends can help win Super Bowl 55

The most dominant defensive lineman on the Chiefs, Chris Jones, plays on the interior. He wouldn't be directly blocked by Gronkowski. That could mean the Buccaneers free Gronkowski up to run more routes, at least situationally like the 29-yard catch-and-run he had in the NFC title game.

It could also mean Tampa Bay opts to double team Jones and keep Gronkowski in to account for the imbalance in numbers whenever the Chiefs send an extra rusher while the double team is in effect. After all, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo beat Brady in Super Bowl 42 with pressure and could look to do so again.

Brate's usage may again turn out to be a total inverse of Gronkowski. If Gronk is still heavily blocking, Brate will continue to run pass routes. His over-the-middle usage could also increase if Antonio Brown is indeed out (or limited) with a knee injury. 

Together, Gronkowski and Brate are the ideal combination for the 43-year old Brady. His long-time teammate keeps him upright, while his first-year teammate gets open in spots the aging right arm can still reach. How often either is used in Super Bowl 55 could depend as much on the Chiefs' game plan as on Tampa Bay'

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Whether it's one catch or key block or five of each, though, Brate and Gronkowski are set up to influence the Super Bowl, each in their own ways.