But when he’s on the field, as the Pittsburgh Steelers found out in Week 15, he turns the New England offense into a whole different beast. That’s a scary thought for the seven other teams still battling for their playoff lives — and a dilemma the Tennessee Titans have to figure out before Saturday’s Divisional Round showdown in Foxborough.
“It’s my first playoff game in a while, so I’m excited, man,” Gronkowski told reporters Tuesday.
But even if the Pats don’t get their top receiver a target this weekend, they’ve still got a solid support staff in place — one that rivals the crew that pushed a Gronk-less offense to the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots can handle life without Gronk — though they certainly don’t want to
The 2016 Patriots got only eight starts from their All-Pro tight end after a combination of hamstring, chest, and back injuries relegated him to injured reserve. Fortunately, head coach Bill Belichick and the New England brain trust was prepared. Martellus Bennett had been acquired earlier in the season to serve as the team’s 1B option at tight end. While Bennett thrived, the rest of the team’s receiving corps stepped up as well: Five other Patriots had 400-plus receiving yards last season.
But some of those key players who kept New England’s engine running at top speed aren’t back a year later. Julian Edelman, who tore his ACL in the preseason, won’t play in a single meaningful game this season. Martellus Bennett departed for Green Bay in free agency, then talked his way out of Wisconsin, re-signed with the Pats, and played in two games before joining Edelman on injured reserve.
Malcolm Mitchell, the rookie receiver who developed a solid connection with Brady (and had six catches for 70 yards in that fateful Super Bowl), hasn’t played a down this season due to a knee injury. Chris Hogan missed seven of the team’s final eight games with a shoulder injury and may not be 100 percent healthy in the playoffs.
Various players have stepped up to fill those voids. Brandin Cooks, traded by the Saints at the cost of a first-round draft pick, had his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season. Danny Amendola tied a career high with eight starts thanks to a healthier-than-normal season. And, of course, Gronkowski was there to roast AFC rivals and achieve a personal dream with 69 receptions for the year.
Playoff Gronk will be counted on to replace Edelman as Tom Brady’s sure-handed security blanket
One major player from the 2017 playoffs won’t join the Patriot huddle this weekend. Edelman’s ACL injury has robbed the Pats of last year’s leading receiver throughout their entire 13-3 run this season.
Edelman finished that year with 1,106 receiving yards, but his biggest contributions came after the regular season. In three playoff games, the veteran wideout had 21 receptions for 342 yards — including what may go down as the greatest catch in the history of the Super Bowl.
His absence will be missed, but the Pats will be buttressed at wide receiver with Amendola — whose Super Bowl per-game yardage (63.0) is significantly higher than his regular season average (37.0) — playoff debutante Cooks, and a back-from-injury Hogan. More importantly, Brady will have a mismatch machine at his disposal at tight end.
In the preceding seven years of his career, Gronkowski’s receiving yards and receptions per game have both increased in the postseason. He’s averaged 5.2 catches, 75.4 yards, and 0.9 touchdowns in the playoffs. Gronk has been especially vicious against one of the league’s most respected defenses in that span as well — in two postseason showdowns with the Broncos, he’s got 18 catches, 289 yards, and scored four receiving touchdowns.
But having Gronkowski on the field doesn’t just benefit the position-redefining tight end. He’s an asset as a blocker, clearing space for a running game that’s had a revival with Dion Lewis stepping into the spotlight at the end of the 2017 season. Lewis has run for 5.3 yards per carry over his last seven games, giving New England a weapon who can take pressure from Brady’s shoulders.
Gronkowski will also help clear space for Lewis and whoever might be taking handoffs for the team just by being on the field. Since linebackers can’t reliably cover Gronkowski one-on-one, his insertion will draw plenty of nickel-and-dime defensive packages that replace bulky linebackers with faster defensive backs who play further off the ball. That will give Patriots’ backs a little more room to maneuver before contact.
And that defensive focus will also allow space for his wide receivers to thrive. Gronkowski demands defensive coordinators plan around him, which will lessen the burden on Cooks, Amendola, and Hogan. That will be more than enough to offset the loss of Edelman — as long as Gronk can keep himself on the field.