The circumstances are different this time around, but the New England Patriots are used to playing without all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Before this week, a suspension hadn’t been the cause for any of Gronkowski’s 25 regular season games missed since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. But the Patriots have managed to navigate Gronkowski’s array of injuries to a 20-5 record without him, making this week’s Monday Night Football game against the Miami Dolphins hardly uncharted territory.
Gronkowski’s appeal of his one-game suspension for a late hit on Tre’Davious White was denied Tuesday, giving Bill Belichick and the rest of the team ample time to prepare for the game in Miami.
“Every week, you deal with the players that you have available and the opponent you’re playing,” Belichick said at his Wednesday morning press conference. “You put it together and figure it out. It’s the same every week.”
Prior to the incident against Buffalo, Gronkowski had put up one of the very best statistical games of his career. He caught nine passes for 147 yards, including seven catches for 119 yards in the second half, as the Patriots pulled away from the Bills. The nine catches matched the second-most of his eight-career and the 147 yards were the fourth-highest single game total for his career.
“You’re talking about a guy who plays at a high level and is a great player,” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said of Gronkowski, adding that the entire offense can feel the sense of urgency knowing he won’t be available on Monday. “I think everyone knows that and feels a sense of urgency that they’ve got to step up a little bit more and do their job that much more.”
Replicating that kind of performance again against the Dolphins would be difficult no matter who starts at tight end for the Patriots, Gronkowski or otherwise. The hope is that there can be some easy medium between Gronkowski’s impact against the Bills and the goose egg the position group collectively laid against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 – Gronk’s other absence this season.
The Patriots pulled out a 19-14 victory over the Bucs. The game is now notable for being the beginning of New England’s current eight-game winning streak and defensive renaissance, but it can also provide a glimpse into how this iteration of the Patriots’ offense runs without Gronkowski.
Tom Brady somehow managed to put up 303 yards passing without a single catch by a tight end. Despite playing in 50 of New England’s 68 offensive snaps, tight end Dwayne Allen wasn’t targeted a single time. Rookie tight end Jacob Hollister was targeted once in eight snaps, while fullback James Develin was targeted once in 13 snaps.
It was the first time the Patriots played a regular season game without a catch from a tight end since Week 17 of the 2013 season.
Martellus Bennett has come and gone since the Tampa Bay game, his return to New England lasting just two weeks before winding up on season-ending injured reserve. A situation such as the one that’s arisen is exactly why the Patriots put in a waiver claim for Bennett in the first place; none of Gronkowski’s understudies had produced in New England like Bennett did last year since the departure of Aaron Hernandez.
Hollister, the undrafted rookie out of Wyoming, does not have a catch since Week 8. Not discouraged, he said that the team is preparing the same way for Miami that it would be with Gronkowski around.
Perhaps, it could be a chance for Hollister to reintroduce himself to Brady as well.
“I’d say it’s just another opportunity to go out and do what they ask of me and do it to the best of my ability,” Hollister said. “I’m really just trying to execute and do my job for the team.”
If nothing else, there’ve been signs of life from Allen lately. He’s nowhere near immersing himself in Brady’s “circle of trust,” but it’s a positive sign all the same that he has a catch in each of the last four games after having none through his first eight.
Picking up the slack for Gronk doesn’t have to come exclusively from the tight end group, either. Wide receiver Chris Hogan was back at practice today for the first time since suffering an injury against the Chargers in late October.
Another candidate to step up could be wide receiver Philip Dorsett, who has shown flashes of his potential in his first season with the Patriots – including the second-longest reception (39 yards) of his career in Week 12’s win over the Dolphins.
Dorsett, whose locker is nearly adjacent to Gronkowski’s (they are separated by a vacant locker), said it’s always different without the powerful tight end around.
“We can’t really focus on that,” Dorsett said. “We know he won’t be here this week. We’ve just got to go out there and play our game.”
Gronkowski isn’t the only player in the NFL suspended for his actions last weekend. JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers and George Iloka of the Cincinnati Bengals were also suspended a game each for their actions on Monday Night Football two days ago. Dorsett said that he could not speak specifically to whether any of the suspensions – Gronk’s included – were fair or not, but he did note the physical nature of the game.
“A lot of these plays are bang-bang,” Dorsett said. “I can’t really comment on it, I don’t really know. It is what it is. It happened and they’ve got to serve a suspension but I can’t really say. I don’t know if it’s fair or not.”
The Patriots may be 2017 AFC East Division champions prior to taking the field on Monday night, should the Bills lose at home to the Indianapolis Colts. Even if the Bills win, New England can lock up its ninth consecutive division title with a win on Monday night.