FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm. Chandler Jones injured his ankle. Logan Mankins hurt his hip, calf and ankle.
Now Julian Edelman is out for the season. The dangerous punt returner and elusive wide receiver was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury by the New England Patriots on Tuesday.
The ailments keep piling up.
But so do the wins.
The Patriots’ sixth straight victory last Sunday clinched first place in the AFC East. But things don’t get easier. That streak, in fact, will be on the line Monday against the Houston Texans (11-1).
Like all teams, the Patriots (9-3) try to build depth. So, when a starter is sidelined, they can rely on his backup to fill in effectively, even if it means playing a different role. That happened at tight end when Gronkowski, the Patriots’ outstanding pass catcher and blocker, missed the past two games with a broken left forearm— with the likelihood he’ll miss at least two more.
The good news in that tight-end equation is that Aaron Hernandez, their other star tight end, is back after missing six games with a sprained right ankle.
One up, one down.
“Every player has some different strengths and so forth and you try to play to those guys’ strengths,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “I don’t think you go into it and you say . there’s only one Rob Gronkowski; there’s only one of those in the league.
“The guys that are going to be in there playing that role, (they) have to go in there and do the best they can do. That’s why they’re on the team and that’s why we have 53 guys on the roster, so everybody can contribute at one point or another.”
Trevor Scott did that at defensive end with two sacks in Sunday’s 23-16 win at Miami. Scott stepped in when Jones, a rookie who is tied for the team lead with six sacks, missed his second game, and his primary backup, Jermaine Cunningham, began a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
On the other side of the ball, Donald Thomas has filled in at left guard for Mankins, who was sidelined five of the past six games.
And now someone — or several players — will try to fill in for Edelman. He scored five touchdowns this season — three on receptions, one on a punt return and one on a fumble recovery. But he left Sun Life Stadium Sunday on crutches, wearing a walking boot on his right foot. Edelman may have broken his foot, but the Patriots provided no details of the injury.
Coach Bill Belichick did go out of his way, though, to praise Edelman’s performance.
“Julian’s had an opportunity to contribute offensively,” he said. “In the kicking game, he’s done a good job for us as a returner. He’s also done a good job for us on kickoff coverage. Offensively, he’s done a good job with the ball in his hands on screens and routes where he can run it, reverses and screens and things like that.”
The Patriots re-signed Donte’ Stallworth on Tuesday to help out at wide receiver. They had released him Aug. 27, after signing him as a free agent following one season with the Redskins. He spent 2007 with the Patriots, one of his six teams, and made 46 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns that year.
“A lot of cuts in training camp are hard,” Belichick said, referring to Stallworth. “Guys come in, they work hard, they’re competitive on our team, (and) they’re competitive against competition.”
The loss of Edelman could mean more work for Wes Welker as a punt returner. That might increase the chances of injury for the NFL’s leading receiver, although he filled in when Edelman missed three games this season with a hand injury.
Along the offensive line, this is nothing new. Backups have played key roles all season, protecting Brady and opening holes for running back Stevan Ridley. Right guard Dan Connolly missed the 59-24 win over Indianapolis Nov. 18 and was replaced by Nick McDonald. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer sat out the 49-19 victory over the Jets Nov. 22 as Marcus Cannon took the start. And Thomas has stepped in for Mankins admirably, as mentioned.
“They’ve all done well,” Belichick said. “They’re all young guys in the relatively early part of their careers that have come in here in a variety of circumstances.”
The health of the Patriots is improving in at least one area — the secondary. Safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are back after missing four games each, although Devin McCourty has moved from cornerback into Chung’s starting spot.
After Gronkowski was hurt, Belichick was asked about the expectations for the backup tight ends.
“Same as for every player on the roster,” he said, “prepare, practice and be ready to go.”
So far, so good.