Healthy Rob Gronkowski Firing on All Cylinders for Resurgent Pats

Rob Gronkowski

Here’s an idea of what it’s like to play with Rob Gronkowski.

Think back to your formative years when you would play football in the schoolyard with your buddies. There was probably one player who was better than everybody, and no matter which team he played on, his team always won.

You know the guy. He had the swagger, the speed, the power, and the skills to dominate every time he walked onto the football field. Even if this guy was your best friend, you wanted to come across somebody, anybody who could shut him down just once. Just to see it happen.

That’s what life is like for Gronkowski in the NFL right now. After two injury-plagued seasons and a slow start this year, Gronkowski has found his top form in the last five games. Not only is he the top tight end in the league, his presence on the football field means that the Patriots have the ability to dominate on an every-week basis.

In Week Eight against the Bears, Gronkowski was targeted nine times by quarterback Tom Brady and he caught all of those throws for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Gronkowski caught the majority of his passes by running up the seam, and he was almost always running away from Chicago’s struggling secondary.

However, on his 46-yard TD reception in the third quarter, Gronkowski simply threw Bears defensive back Ryan Mundy to the ground when the 211-pound free safety attempted to halt Gronkowski’s progress.

“You can’t double-team us,” LaFell explained after the Bears game. “You’ve got to respect Gronk running down the middle of the field, or he’ll do the things he did today.”

It’s one thing to torch the Bears, who have suffered through two brutal defensive seasons since they parted company with former head coach Lovie Smith.

It’s quite another thing to do the same thing against the Denver Broncos, who were looked at as the best team in the NFL prior to their showdown with the Pats at Foxboro. Gronkowski was targeted 10 times against the Broncos, and he caught nine of those passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.

The Broncos were paying serious attention to Gronkowski and while he didn’t annihilate them the way he did Chicago, they still couldn’t stop him.

But even more important than his production was simply his presence from a strategic point of view. Slowing Gronkowski was the defensive priority on nearly every snap, and that meant that it was much easier going for Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola.

Gronkowski gets double-coverage on a regular basis. When Tom Brady is getting the protection he has in recent weeks, it’s basically like a visit to the smorgasbord. He gets to pick and choose which receiver he wants to throw to, and Brady almost always makes the right decision.

Gronkowski has moved to the head of the tight end class when it comes to production, as he has caught 49-663-8 as the Pats go into their bye week. Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett are all having productive years, but they are all looking up at Gronkowski at this point.

A healthy Graham can give Gronkowski a run for his money, but he has been troubled by a shoulder problem this year. At his best, Graham is a dangerous down-the-field game changer. He has explosive speed for a tight end, but he simply doesn’t have Gronkowski’s power.

Gronkowski has downplayed his own athletic ability, and points more toward his technique for his ability to get open. “Being a big guy, obviously, I’m not as fast as the DBs and the safeties, and some of the linebackers are really fast, too,” Gronkowski said. “I got to use my body as leverage to outflank the guy, use it like a basketball move to box out. Sometimes, it’s huge to use the body to get open.”

The Patriots could not turn to Gronkowski down the stretch last season. A hit by Cleveland’s T.J. Ward tore his ACL in Week 14, and his absence hurt Brady and the New England offense dramatically.

Ward has since moved onto the Broncos, and there was quite a bit of trepidation prior to last week’s game concerning another devastating hit. Sure enough, Ward came barreling into Gronkowski’s knee in the first quarter once again, but this time the tight end lifted his leg upon impact and he suffered no damage.

Gronkowski spent the rest of the game tattooing Ward with big play after big play.

Gronkowski has survived the first half of the season and has found his top form. If he can stay healthy the rest of the way, there may be no stopping him or the Patriots.

He’s the best player on the field, and everybody knows it. Just like that kid you grew up with in those schoolyard games.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.