December 4, 2013

NFL: Returning to form

Gronkowski has Patriots back at top of game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Rob Gronkowski made a pair of jaw-dropping plays on Sunday.

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New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs from Denver Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho (33) after a catch in the third quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Yet nothing the New England Patriots tight end does these days surprises receiver Julian Edelman.

“That guy, he’s a stud,” Edelman said. “It’s Rob Gronkowski. Anytime you’ve got a guy who plays his tail off in the run and pass game, it’s going to help the team.”

Despite suiting up for only half of New England’s games this season after multiple offseason surgeries on his forearm and back, Gronkowski is playing a pivotal part in the Patriots’ (9-3) potent offense since his return.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound matchup nightmare has hauled in 37 receptions for 560 yards in just six games, scoring touchdowns in the last four.

It’s a far cry from his numbers last season, when he set an NFL record for tight ends with 18 overall touchdowns, but his return has been nothing short of swift and spectacular.

He was a major contributor in a win over Houston on Sunday, catching six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown, which may rank atop the list of his 42 career receiving scores.

Gronkowski ran 10 yards across the middle, turned upfield and beat his man, eventually hauling in a 23-yard scoring strike from quarterback Tom Brady.

Sounds routine, right?

The catch was far from it.

Gronkowski lowered his big body, used his monstrous hands to scoop up Brady’s low throw about 12 inches off the ground and rolled the final two yards into the end zone.

He looked more like a shortstop than a tight end.

“Single coverage, double coverage, whatever it is, I’ve got to be prepared and I’ve got to work to the best of my ability to get open and do my job on the team,” Gronkowski said. “The more you’re playing ball, the more you’re building chemistry with your teammates, the more confident you’re going to be.”

He also made a huge catch on the opening drive of the second half with the Patriots trailing by 10, dragging a handful of Texans’ defenders down the field as he picked up 50 yards. The big play set up a touchdown that spurred New England to victory.

While he appears as healthy as ever, Gronkowski wouldn’t say whether this is the best he has felt in his four-year career.

“Every week, just trying to feel as good as possible for the game on Sunday. That’s why the game of football is played only once a week, because after those games, you’re banged up,” he said. “You’ve just got to prepare yourself every week to the best of your ability, so I feel good on Sundays.”

Gronkowski has had an immediate impact on what had been an anemic offense to start the season. Brady was throwing to a new cast of receivers, three of them rookies.

Without Gronkowski in the lineup for the first six games, the Patriots were averaging 20.8 points. They now are averaging 32.8 in their last six with him on the field, going 4-2 during that time.

His presence alone is enough to warrant double coverage or at least enough to divert attention from other receivers.

“That’s kind of what he does best. He’s such a physical presence on the field. His size, his length, his speed, his quickness, he’s a tough matchup,” Brady said. “Gronk always seems to have a physical advantage, it’s just a matter of if the scheme can help find a way to get him open.

“The other teams are pretty conscious of what he’s doing out there. They don’t often let him just run free in the secondary or get down the field.”

Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski wants his defense to know exactly where Gronkowski is at all times Sunday when the Browns (4-8) play the Patriots.

“A lot of times you’ll see guys who are great receivers but not necessarily good blockers, or great blockers and not necessarily the receivers, and he does them both. He’s outstanding at them both, and there’s not many guys around that can do that,” Chudzinski said. “He’s such a weapon and he’s a clutch player, and certainly Brady looks to him in those times. He’s so big, can run so well, so athletic.

“He’s just a tough matchup. Who do you put on him to cover him?”

It hasn’t really mattered lately.

“Any week, at any time, at any point in the game, just got to expect anything and be prepared and be ready for anything that can come at you,” Gronkowski said. “You’ve got to believe in yourself every play and every matchup.”

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