AFC East: 2013 Week 14 CLE at NE

Gronkowski injury hits teammates hard

December, 8, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is the type of moment where time seems to stop, an eerie quiet taking over a stadium with 60,000-plus in attendance as the cart comes out for an injured player. Emotions of teammates swirl.

“It’s like you’re in a bad dream,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said, “and you’re hoping you wake up and it wasn’t really happening.”

It happened to the New England Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday.

The potential season-changing moment occurred with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-26 comeback victory, Gronkowski’s right knee taking a direct but legal hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.

As Gronkowski lay on the ground, medical staff surrounding him and calling for the cart, several of his teammates were devastated. Some, like Slater, began to pray.

“My heart is broken for Rob and having to see him go through that, seeing him in pain, and realizing what he has been through in his young career, it’s heartbreaking, it really is,” Slater said.

“You can’t help but think about that. They always say ‘injuries are a part of the game, injuries are a part of the game,’ but that doesn’t mean you get used to it. Guys are out here putting their bodies on the line week in and week out. ... That kid has been through so much, and he’s worked his butt off to overcome a lot of different things at a young age.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesGillette Stadium fell silent after Rob Gronkowski suffered what likely will be a season-ending injury.
“He means so much to this football team, not only what he does on the field, but in the locker room -- his presence. He brings a childlike joy to the locker room.”

Slater’s emotions captured a unique mood in the Patriots’ locker room after their remarkable comeback win.

There was elation at accomplishing what looked like the impossible after trailing 26-14 with 2:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. But there also was the realization that they would now be chasing their Super Bowl hopes without a key member of the team, which has season-altering possibilities, as the Patriots fear Gronkowski tore his ACL, with an MRI scheduled for Monday to confirm the injury, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Gronkowski’s season got off to a delayed start, as he missed the first six games while recovering from offseason back and forearm surgeries. He seemed to be hitting his stride the past few weeks and had been a huge addition to the Patriots' offense.

Players from both teams came over to Gronkowski on the cart to offer encouragement before he waved to the crowd. Teammate Matthew Mulligan had helped Gronkowski onto the cart.

“Obviously, there is a lot of emotion there, from him and from me; I just wanted to be there in any way I possibly could,” Mulligan said of the moment. “When you have a good player like him, and you know all the struggles that he’s gone through already, I think it’s catastrophic and everybody feels it.

“You spend so much time with these men on this team, a lot of times more than your family. When something happens that’s out of the ordinary, and it’s a difficult situation, you feel for him. It’s just like your brother. It was very difficult to watch. That’s why you go over and try to pick him up any way you possibly can -- whether it’s physically [or something else]. He would do the same for me.”

Transitioning from the injury back to the game naturally was a challenge for Patriots players.

“We’re all human, so we have different emotions that come out,” said Mulligan, the No. 2 tight end who elevated into Gronkowski’s role after the injury.

“The first thing I thought was everything he went through to get back out here, and how hard he’s worked,” said safety Devin McCourty, another of the team’s captains.

“To see him take a shot and go down, it kind of kills us a little bit,” running back Shane Vereen added. “But we know he’ll be back; he’s a fighter.”

It’s unlikely Gronkowski will be back in 2013, which was a reality many players were wrapping their heads around at the same time they were dissecting an improbable victory.

“When it first happens, you’re like, ‘It’s not real. It’s not really happening,’” Slater said of Gronkowski being carted off. “But as you see him out on the field, in pain, and it was a tough pill to swallow.”

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 8, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' stunning 27-26 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Everything. Not the outcome of the game, which was another amazing Patriots comeback that was only solidified after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was short with a 58-yard attempt at the final gun. Tight end Rob Gronkowski being carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a serious leg injury is a season changer for New England. Gronkowski is that much of a difference-maker. In the postgame news conference Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Rob was taken to the hospital for a observation and evaluation on his injury. That's all I have on that."

Measuring Gronkowski's impact: Since his return to action on Oct. 20, Gronkowski almost single-handedly changed the Patriots' offense. The Patriots were 22nd in points per game before Gronkowski returned; they were seventh entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 30th in red zone efficiency without Gronkowski; they were 11th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 19th in passing yards per game without Gronkowski; they were 10th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 16th in first downs per game before Gronkowski returned; they were fifth entering Sunday's game.

Where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski: Assuming tests reveal what many assume -- that Gronkowski will be out for the season with a leg/knee injury -- the Patriots won't be able to find a player to replace his production. They'll need to find new ways to create offense, such as what we saw in parts of the second half with running back Shane Vereen becoming a greater part of the passing offense. From a pure 1-for-1 personnel standpoint, tight end D.J. Williams -- who was released on Wednesday -- could be brought back to add another tight end, along with Matthew Mulligan and recovering Michael Hoomanawanui (knee).

Unbelievable comeback: Gronkowski's injury cast a cloud over a remarkable comeback. How do the Patriots keep digging themselves into an early hole, when it seems the game is lost, only to pull it out? It's one of their most redeeming qualities -- they are hard to knock out and play all 60 minutes (and sometimes beyond). This was simply stunning, requiring an onside kick to be recovered with one minute remaining -- and the benefit of what looked like a generous 29-yard pass-interference penalty -- to set up the winning touchdown. Wow. Patriots fans have seen some of the ugliest football the Patriots have ever played this season ... and also some of the most remarkable comebacks.

Where's the protection? When considering why the Patriots' offense struggled as much as it did, after crediting the Browns' defense, one area to look at from a New England perspective is inconsistent offensive line play. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure at various points in the game. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, arguably the two best linemen on the team, were beaten for sacks.

Stock watch -- coaching staff: Falling: One week after being praised for its in-game adjustments, the Patriots' staff finds itself in this category, as the Patriots sputtered out of the gate with another slow start. Something isn't getting through.

Ridley back in the mix with 17 snaps: After he was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston because of ball-security issues, running back Stevan Ridley was active and used as part of a committee with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. Ridley was the third player in the mix, as we counted him on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties).

What's next: The Patriots travel to South Florida to face the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15 (1 p.m. ET).

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 8, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing some halftime thoughts as the New England Patriots trail the Browns 6-0:

Uninspiring performance from Patriots: Dropped passes. Missed blocking assignments. Substitution issues on the sideline with the coaching staff and players that lead to 12-men-on-the-field penalties and general confusion. Simply put, it’s been uninspiring football from the Patriots. At the same time, credit also goes to the Browns in some areas (e.g. D'Qwell Jackson's range on an interception of a throw that was forced), who certainly haven’t quit after last week’s loss to the Jaguars.

Not as much about adjustments as execution: Unlike last week, when the Patriots altered their offensive plan at halftime, this game doesn’t strike us as much about being adjustment-based. It’s more about execution. There are opportunities there if they can make the plays. The Patriots looked like one of the NFL's worst teams in the first half.

Charting Ridley’s usage: The Patriots have eased running back Stevan Ridley back into the mix after he was a healthy scratch last week because of ball-security issues. He played five snaps in the first half.

Siliga’s presence highlights focus on interior rush defense: One of the areas prioritized defensively during the week of practice was the Browns’ inside running game. Along those lines, the Patriots started nose tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) over Joe Vellano (6-2, 300), electing for more bulk and power (and choosing Siliga over veteran Isaac Sopoaga to provide it). That was a notable personnel shift, and the results have been good. The inside running game, outside of the first few plays of the game, hasn’t been a big factor.

Closer look at cornerback usage: The Patriots started Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan at cornerback in the base defense, with Talib shadowing receiver Josh Gordon all over the field. When the Browns go to a three-receiver package, the Patriots are taking Ryan off the field and adding cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the fourth and fifth defensive backs. Something different, with Talib and Ryan two of the bright spots in a half with few of them.

Patriots open the half with ball: After winning the opening toss and deferring the choice to the second half, the Patriots will receive the opening kickoff of the half.