FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Given all the surgeries he endured during the past year-and-a-half, as well as all the time missed practicing and playing, it was hard to expect Rob Gronkowski to immediately pick up where he left off.
Without a doubt, the Patriots superstar tight end showed some rust the first few games, and there was also the matter of getting his legs and wind back. Eight days ago against the Steelers – where the Patriots won 55-31 and entered their bye week with a 7-2 record – he sure looked a lot like the Gronk of old, playing like one of the NFL’s most feared offensive weapons.
What will that mean for the Patriots going forward?
In a word: everything. A healthy Gronk changes the dynamics of not only the offense, but the outlook of the team in general. He’s a game-changer.
The offense had been sputtering. Gronkowski has the ability to wear out a defense, and Tom Brady will hit him all day on post patterns and seam routes. Opposing defenses will throw everyone at him in an attempt to cover the hulking tight end. Only it usually proves futile.
Just ask the Steelers. They clearly had no answer.
Four years ago when he entered the NFL, the Pats tight end popularized the term “matchup nightmare.” Be it a safety, linebacker or corner, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound freight train is nearly impossible to cover.
When foes steer more coverage toward him, Brady’s other options are single-covered or left completely open. Danny Amendola had four catches for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers.
“Defensively, you can stop anything you want if you’re willing to put enough emphasis on it with the understanding you’re going to pay for it someplace else,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, now an NFL Network analyst.
“Up to now, without the presence of a Gronkowski, you could stop the run game, or this receiver or that, and they weren’t going to make you pay elsewhere enough. Well, you’re going to have to put those assets on Rob Gronkowski, which should be a field day for Amendola, (Aaron) Dobson, the running game and every other aspect.”
In Billick’s view, Gronkowski provides Brady with the one thing he’s been missing since the opening game: a go-to guy.
Wes Welker used to be that receiver. Amendola has missed too much time to assume that role. Given his rapport with Brady and his incomparable skill-set, Gronkowski has been that trusted target since his return.
Prior to his return, the Patriots had difficulty scoring in the red zone. They were, in fact, the league’s worst, with just nine touchdowns in 22 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Since his return, the Pats have had 10 touchdowns in 14 trips to the red zone.
“I don’t know who you put on him? With his sheer size and physicality, combined with his athleticism and great hands,” Billick said.
“Jimmy Graham is a tremendous receiver and tight end, but he doesn’t have the physical, powerful presence of a Rob Gronkowski. Vernon Davis has incredible speed. But he’s not the overall athlete that Rob Gronkowski is.”
Former Boston College and NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, now an ESPN analyst, says games are won and lost through favorable matchups, such as the ones Gronkowski creates.
“You can put him in the class of some of these offensive players that will dictate. . . . It used to happen with Randy Moss,” said Hasselbeck.
“You have to gameplan around him. He commands that much attention.”
But he does something else for Brady. He makes diagnosing the defense so much easier. And by extension, it also makes it easier for the rookie receivers to see what’s going on.
“If you look at teams who have a dominant offensive player, which you can classify Gronkowski as being, they will in some way or another, force the defense to show their hand in terms of how they want to defend you,” Hasselbeck said. “With all the attention on Gronk, it simplifies it for someone like Aaron Dobson. Hey, it helps everybody out.”
With the offense seemingly back to form, it could help make up for an injury-ravaged defense. Looking at the AFC, every team seems flawed, even the unbeaten Chiefs, who are content to win with defense alone.
Concluded Billick: “Here they sit at 7-2. If you told people at the beginning of the year, they’d be at 7-2, and were getting healthier on offense, with (Gronkowski) back at full strength, they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, here we go again.’
“Now there’s no question the loss of Vince Wilfork was huge. That’s going to be a lot to overcome. But they’re sitting pretty good. Most coaches want to play well enough in September and October to position themselves to be a factor in November and December. Clearly, that’s what New England has done.”