New England Patriots: A healthy Gronkowski raises Pats offense to new level

 Rob Gronkowsk appears to be 100% healthy and elevating the New England Patriots offense.
NFL: Chicago Bears at New England Patriots

Oct 26, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) gestures after catching the ball against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — With the New England Patriots entering the tough part of their schedule, its finest weapon is reaching top gear. Now that tight end Rob Gronkowski firing on all cylinders, games against Denver, Indianapolis, Detroit and Green Bay don’t appear quite as daunting.

Now appearing 100 percent, Gronkowski has the Patriots offense operating on an elite level. One of the finest performances of his career propelled New England, who scored 31 points in the second quarter – including three touchdowns in one minute even – to cruise to a 51-23 win over Chicago Sunday. The win improved the Patriots record to 6-2, right on track for their 12th straight double-digit win season.

Gronkowski torched the Bears defense to the tune of nine catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns. He missed on a fourth touchdown by a single yard, as well. The three-touchdown performance was the second of his career. In 58 career games, Gronkowski now has 49 touchdowns – New England is 46-12 in those games. The nine receptions also tied a career high.

Gronkowski has such a ridiculous catch radius (his six-foot-six height plus a pair of insanely long arms) that even tight coverage doesn’t prevent completions. Many of his catches were at least contested – such as the opening touchdown on a corner route in the first quarter – but quarterback Tom Brady threaded the needle on some and put the football in a position where only Gronkowski could catch.

NFL: Chicago Bears at New England Patriots
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Take Gronk’s seventh catch, a two-yard touchdown on a fade route. The ball placement was excellent by Brady, and Shea McClellan was in pretty good position – he’s just isn’t in the same stratosphere athletically as Gronkowski, and that was the difference between a touchdown and an incomplete pass.

It was a dream matchup for Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots offense; the Bears were without both of their starting linebackers — Lance Briggs and Jonathan Bostic. New England worked the short left, and short middle sides of the field and their playmakers made plays in space.

Backup linebacker Darryl Sharpton was sucked in on an easy 16-yard seam pass on first-and-10 from the Bears 30. Safeties Chris Conte and Ryan Mundy drew most of the coverage duties, and the results were disastrous. Mundy in particular was burned repeatedly and learned the harsh lesson there are only a handful of people that can cover Gronkowski one-on-one.

His final catch – a 46 yard touchdown in the third quarter – was a thing of beauty. Lined up right next to the offensive tackle, Gronkowski ran a simple 10-yard in route, but shed a tackle attempt by Mundy and bulled his way into the end zone. The throw by Brady was low, but it didn’t seem that way given how long Gronkowski’s arms are.

What was lost in Gronkowski’s coming out party was the performance of second tight end Tim Wright, who caught seven passes on seven targets for 61 yards. With Gronkowski at full strength, Wright should see more open space and the dreaded two and three tight end formations will return en masse.

Gronkowski took a while to get on the field after recovering from an offseason forearm injury. Gronkowski struggled to gain separation in the opener against Miami was not on the field very often over the next several weeks.

The last two weeks has proven he’s healthy. He played 93 percent of the snaps against the Jets last week and was on the field for most of the game against Chicago before it got out of hand. Gronkowski has been targeted at least nine times in four straight games – all wins.

And for that quarterback that (including me) questioned? Well that guy hasn’t thrown an interception since the Week 4 disaster in Kansas City. Since then, Brady had completed 69 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was 30 of 35 for 354 yards and five touchdowns against Chicago.

I still feel Brady will struggle once a team with a good pass rush can play press-man coverage, such as Baltimore. His inability to go vertical will catch up with this offense, but Gronkowski’s return to form does provide hope.

Of course, those types of defenses are few and far between – aside from Denver, there doesn’t appear to be a stiff defense remaining on the schedule – and his final season numbers will be stellar. The more things change, the more they stay the same: New England and “the team Peyton Manning plays for” are on track to own the top two seeds in the AFC come playoff time.

Gronkowski is the best tight end in football when healthy; his track record since entering the league is undeniable. With Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos rolling into town, the New England offense will have to be in top form, and he’s a much-needed weapon.

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