Offensively, the challenge this week is not only sizing up the Dolphins' defense, but game planning without tight end Rob Gronkowski, placed on injured reserved Monday afternoon.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dissected the process of trying to account for Gronkowski's absence.
"I don't think you can replace a player like that, a guy that can do so many unique things, with anybody," he said. "I think the thing that we rely on the most from one week to the next has always been trying to figure out what part of our offensive system do you use to maximize the strengths of the players that we have available for us that week against the strengths of the opponent we're playing that week as well.
"And so I think for us the formula's not going to change, the variables that can we use, however, will and I think that happens a lot during the course of the season," he continued.
For the Patriots, that could mean more of a reliance on tight ends Matthew Mulligan, recently re-signed D.J. Williams and perhaps Michael Hoomanawanui, who is working his way back from a knee injury.
Playing without Gronkowski is not necessarily a new challenge for the Patriots -- he missed 11 games dating back to last season before making his 2013 debut -- though McDaniels doesn't know whether playing without Gronkowski previously makes them better equipped to do so again now.
"I think we've experienced playing without him before and I think that -- I don't know if we're better equipped," he said. "I'm not exactly sure how to rate that, I just know that any time you lose a player like that where you can't use a player like that, you need to put your time in to a few different things and other people have to play different roles and you just play offense a little differently."
With a trip to Miami on the horizon, McDaniels and the rest of the offensive staff are focused on ways to maximize the healthy personnel on the roster for this Sunday and going forward.
"I think we kind of have an idea exactly what we need to use, how to kind of formulate our game plan to max out our strengths and try to make up for the loss of a unique player," he said.
The play angered many in New England, who thought Ward’s hit was dirty. In former times it might have been, as players had an unwritten rule not to hit a guy in the knee from behind or the side. Ward said he went for Gronkowski’s thigh, and the hit was worsened by the timing -- Ward caught Gronkowski as he planted his right knee with his leg extended.
Some New England fans thought Ward’s hit was a response to Gronkowski throwing his arms in the air on the previous play and drawing a pass interference penalty on a ball 10 yards over his head.
The Patriots came back with a similar route, but Ward was deep safety on the play and not covering Gronkowski man-to-man. The hit was low, fast and it turned ugly in a hurry. But Ward said he would never try to hurt another player, that he is a 200-pound guy trying to bring down a 265-pound guy running pretty fast.
To Ward, he had no other choice if he wanted to make the tackle.
The national and local discussion included the following:
Longtime Browns writer Tony Grossi of WKNR, ESPNCleveland.com points out that earlier in the season Tashaun Gipson had taken out Bills quarterback EJ Manuel with an open-field hit to to the knee as well. “When NFL rules-makers gather in March to consider what they have wrought from efforts to make the game safer, they can pretty much run a Browns’ defensive highlight reel,” he wrote.
A huge crowd of Boston reporters talked to Ward after the game, but the media in Boston did not take after Ward. Longtime Patriots writer Ron Borges wrote in the Boston Herald that Ward “did nothing wrong.” He add: “In fact, he did exactly what the suits in New York insist is the right thing by avoiding the kind of high hit that has resulted in Ward being fined three times and threatened with suspension.”
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi regularly writes a feature for ESPN-Boston answering fans’ questions, and one was related to whether Ward’s hit was dirty. Bruschi answered in part by saying: “Even in today's NFL, I can see how people may think that hit was dirty. But I look at it this way -- what are defenders supposed to do now?”
Greg Bedard covered the Patriots for the Boston Globe before he joined the MMQB (Monday Morning Quarterback) on SI.com. Bedard called for rules changes outlawing hits to the knee, but added he was not buying Ward’s explanation: “There are plenty of other places to tackle opponents below their heads that don’t involve ending someone’s season. The players are using it as an excuse when accused of delivering a dirty hit.”
Tom Curran of CSN New England also has covered the Patriots for some time. He joins Bedard in saying that low hits to the knees should catch the attention of the NFL in the offseason when rules are addressed, then wrote: “The chance of T.J. Ward bouncing off Gronk and the tight end continuing downfield would have risen with every inch Ward raised his target zone. But the odds of Gronkowski having his knee destroyed with the kind of hit Ward chose to deliver in that situation were off the charts.”
Points per game
This week: 5th (26.8)
Last week: 6th (26.8)
Last season: 1st (34.8)
Dolphins in 2013: 21st (22)
Points allowed per game
This week: 10th (22)
Last week: 10th (21.75)
Last season: Tied-9th (20.6)
Dolphins in 2013: 9th (21.2)
This week: 16th (66 of 178, 37.1 percent)
Last week: 18th (60 of 163, 36.8 percent)
Last season: 1st (110 of 226, 48.7 percent)
Dolphins in 2013: 22nd (64 of 179, 35.8 percent)
This week: 31st (85 of 194, 43.8 percent)
Last week: 30th (78 of 179, 43.6 percent)
Last season: 22nd (82 of 205, 40.0 percent)
Dolphins in 2013: 13th (69 of 187, 36.9 percent)
This week: Tied-9th (plus-6; 24 takeaways, 18 giveaways)
Last week: Tied-6th (plus-8; 24 takeaways, 16 giveaways)
Last season: 1st (plus-25, 41 takeaways, 16 giveaways)
Dolphins in 2013: 13th (plus-2; 22 takeaways, 20 giveaways)
Red zone offense (based on TD percentage)
This week: 11th (31 of 54)
Last week: 11th (28 of 50)
Last season: 1st (49 of 70)
Dolphins in 2013: 17th (23 of 42)
Red zone defense (based on TD percentage)
This week: 19th (23 of 40)
Last week: 21st (22 of 38)
Last season: 13th (24 of 46)
Dolphins in 2013: 10th (22 of 43)
1. Assessing the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes without Rob Gronkowski.
2. Should Gronkowski consider changing his style of play when he returns to full health?
3. Browns safety T.J. Ward's hit and the idea that he felt the only place he could target was low because of NFL rules.
4. Revisiting Gronkowski's contract and why the end of the 2015 season is a key time period.
5. Fullback James Develin potentially becoming a bigger part of the plan.
6. Looking closer at rookie receiver Josh Boyce in his most extended action of the season.
Patriots 2013 television lineup
at Bills: Greg Gumbel/Dan Dierdorf/Tracy Wolfson (CBS)
versus Jets: Brad Nessler/Mike Mayock/Alex Flanagan (NFL Network)
versus Buccaneers: Kevin Burkhardt/John Lynch/Erin Andrews (Fox)
at Falcons: Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth/Michele Tafoya (NBC)
at Bengals: Greg Gumbel/Dan Dierdorf (CBS)
versus Saints: Thom Brennaman/Troy Aikman/Pam Oliver (Fox)
at Jets: Greg Gumbel/Dan Dierdorf (CBS)
versus Dolphins: Jim Nantz/Phil Simms (CBS)
versus Steelers: Jim Nantz/Phil Simms (CBS)
at Panthers: Mike Tirico/Jon Gruden/Lisa Salters (ESPN)
vs. Broncos: Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth/Michele Tafoya (NBC)
at Texans: Greg Gumbel/Dan Dierdorf (CBS)
vs. Browns: Don Criqui/Steve Tasker (CBS)
at Dolphins: Jim Nantz/Phil Simms (CBS)
A year ago, they were able to do the job in Miami, sealing their fourth straight division crown.
Entering this season, many predicted the Dolphins would prove to be the Patriots' stiffest competition in the AFC East after a heavy spending offseason and the continued development of young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins have their eyes on the playoffs, and they find themselves in the hunt, as they're among four teams vying for one of the final wild card spots. The Chiefs hold a three-game edge for what would be the AFC's fifth seed.
We previously introduced the Dolphins prior to the teams' first matchup, won by the Patriots 27-17 at Gillette Stadium, but below is a primer of more names and faces of note in Miami.
Record: 7-6 (2nd in AFC East)
Head coach: Joe Philbin (second season)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Sherman
Defensive coordinator: Kevin Coyle
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. Running back Daniel Thomas. Thomas was uncertain to play entering Miami's Week 14 game in Pittsburgh, then went out to rush for the most yards he's had in a game since his very first NFL contest. More of a power, north-south runner than a laterally-elusive back, Thomas is part of a one-two attack that includes the speedy Lamar Miller, though Miller left Sunday's game with a concussion. The Dolphins have struggled running the ball this year, but Thomas gives them some thump in the backfield.
2. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Acquired in a trade prior to the first game between the teams, McKinnie is a towering tackle that has been productive in the league for a long time. His matchup with Chandler Jones will be one worth watching, as pass protection woes have been a team problem for Miami, which has surrendered 48 sacks this season, most in the NFL.
3. Tight end Charles Clay. There's not a ton of flash to Clay's game, but he is reliable and versatile. He'll be used all over the formation -- he's carried the ball six times this season to go along with his 60 catches -- and he's one of Tannehill's trusted targets. Clay led the Dolphins with five catches during the first meeting with the Patriots and is an unheralded target that the Patriots must account for.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. Defensive end/outside linebacker Olivier Vernon. While Cameron Wake is an established pass rushing force, the Dolphins entered 2013 hoping that rookie Dion Jordan -- a player they traded up in the draft to select -- would become that bookend rusher to morph their pressure into one of the game's best. As it turns out, Vernon, the team's third-round pick in 2012, has become the complementary piece opposite of Wake, as he's exploded for 11.5 sacks through just 13 games. His three-sack, 10-tackle outing against the Jets in Week 13 earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
2. Linebacker Philip Wheeler. Wheeler's breakout 2012 season with the Raiders made him an attractive free agent commodity this past offseason, luring Miami to pounce on him and insert him alongside Dannell Ellerbe and others. Wheeler has performed well, leading the team in tackles with 92. The 28-year-old has been a steady pro since being taken 93rd overall by the Colts in 2008 out of Georgia Tech.
3. Safety Reshad Jones. While the Dolphins were busy spending in free agency this offseason, they also made sure to lock up one of their own, as they extended the contract of Jones, a former fifth-round pick who has become a cornerstone of their secondary. A presence in the running game, Jones has 78 tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks, one interception and four pass breakups. In his past six games against the Patriots, Jones has tallied 48 tackles.
OTHER NOTES: The Dolphins have allowed just four touchdown passes to wide receivers this season (including one to Aaron Dobson), though they've been more generous to tight ends, surrendering 12 touchdown passes. ... Punter Brandon Fields is having a strong season with a net average of 42.1 yards per punt and 25 punts downed inside the 20. ... The Dolphins spent big this offseason to land speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace in free agency, but it is Brian Hartline who leads them with 855 yards receiving. ... Tannehill has excellent mobility as a former college wide receiver, and he set a career-high with 56 rushing yards in Week 14 against Pittsburgh.
1. The Patriots increased their usage of the four-receiver package after Rob Gronkowski left the game with a knee injury, and they used it for 15 snaps in the fourth quarter, the majority coming in the final two drives when they were in hurry-up. That brought Austin Collie on to the field as a fourth receiver. Collie had only played two snaps before the final three drives of the game when he was on for 13. That made the performance similar to his work against the Saints on Oct. 13 when he was more of a factor late.
2. Can't say enough about the back-to-back fourth-quarter performances of kicker Stephen Gostkowski the last two weeks -- field goals from 53, 53, 50 and a successful “middle bunt” onside kick to help produce an improbable victory.
3. On Josh Gordon's 34-yard end-around (5:07 remaining), a handful of Patriots defenders pulled up as they got close to Gordon, perhaps thinking he would go out of bounds. It was unusual to see linebackers Jamie Collins and Brandon Spikes, among others, to be playing so tentative at such a critical time in the game.
4. Credit linebacker Dont'a Hightower with an assist for producing the intentional grounding penalty on Jason Campbell (4:12 remaining) as he rocked running back Fozzy Whittaker to the ground within the legal 5-yard zone; that was where Campbell wanted to go with the football. While it was a questionable penalty, the play highlighted from this viewpoint why Hightower was more of a factor than he has been in recent weeks.
5. Perhaps tentative to blitz because they were burned on Gordon's 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter, the Patriots sent just the standard four rushers (Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Andre Carter, Joe Vellano) on third-and-17 with 4:06 remaining. The Browns offensive line kept an extremely clean pocket and Campbell had plenty of time to step into a 19-yard low strike to Gordon (Aqib Talib in coverage). The lack of pressure hurt the Patriots at various points in the game, perhaps none more than that play.
6. On the Patriots touchdown drive to slice the deficit to 26-21, completions to Julian Edelman of 23 and 19 yards gave the march a similar feel to the game-winning drive against the Saints on Oct. 13.
7. Count me among the crowd who didn't see enough to call pass interference on cornerback Leon McFadden on the Patriots' game-winning drive, giving them the ball at the 1. Not enough contact there from this viewpoint to make that call.
8. Total time of game: 3 hours, 41 minutes. That's the team's longest non-overtime game of the season, as only four of 13 contests have been three hours or less.
At 6-foot-6 and a seemingly all-muscle 265 pounds, he's almost too fast and athletic for someone with such a build. He plays with reckless abandon and seldom leaves the field, and because of that and the beating every tight end takes in the NFL, we pondered these thoughts over the 24 hours since he was carted off with a season-ending knee injury: Is his style of play sustainable and will he ever be the same again?
Gronkowski's medical file, specifically his prior back injury, was the biggest concern for many teams when he was coming out of the University of Arizona in 2010. What's easy to forget is that he had proven to be one of the team's most durable players in his first two NFL seasons, seldom, if ever, missing a practice. He played in every game.
At that point, Gronkowski had mostly erased any medical-based doubts, and the Patriots obviously felt his style of play could hold up because they struck a contract extension with him through 2019.
Now the picture has changed.
Still, he came back strong this year and looked like the "same old Gronk." That is, until the knee injury knocked him out, the result of a hit that could have happened to anyone. More bad luck.
So is Gronkowski's style of play keeping him off the field?
Fair question, but the more we consider it, we think the reason the 24-year-old Gronkowski finds himself in this position is less about the way he plays the game and more about an unfortunate run of bad luck and misfortune.
1. Similar to the second quarter, when the Patriots pulled left guard Logan Mankins to create play-action, it led to a sack. There was pressure on both the right side where Mankins pulled, and also the blindside, where left tackle Nate Solder was beaten by Jabaal Sheard. The degree of difficulty in making those plays work almost makes one wonder if they are worth calling so regularly.
2. The Patriots' inability to consistently pressure with the four-man rush, which was in contrast to the Browns, showed up on Cleveland's first drive of the quarter. Jason Campbell was never touched. His comfort in the pocket contributed to him making some on-target throws -- first to Davone Bess on third-and-8 (with 11:18 remaining) and then to tight end Jordan Cameron for 21 yards on first-and-10. He made it look easy, in part because of the lack of pressure.
3. On tight end Gary Barnidge's 40-yard touchdown catch-and-run, safety Devin McCourty took a poor angle on the play, with receiver Josh Gordon's position on the field creating an obstacle. Still, that's a play a safety can't make. McCourty has been excellent for the most part this season as that play stood out as uncharacteristic for him.
4. As for the illegal hands to the face penalty on cornerback Aqib Talib on the Barnidge touchdown, it looked like Gordon, the receiver, easy could have also been called for ripping Talib down by the facemask with his left hand. That was one play that highlighted an overall theme from the day -- inconsistent officiating in which neither team really knew what it was getting because some obvious penalties were let go while some marginal infractions were called.
5. On the play in which Rob Gronkowski was injured (8:36 remaining), safety T.J. Ward's hit was within the rules, although watching it multiple times makes one wonder if the NFL will consider altering the rules in the years to come to further protect defenseless/vulnerable receivers. Very tough to watch, but at the same time, this has always been a game with violent collisions and it was just last week that we saw Patriots players getting chopped down at the line of scrimmage by Texans players going low. I don't think Ward had intent to injure, and he was also one of the Browns players who exchanged a handshake with Gronkowski before he was carted off (along with defensive tackle Phil Taylor and quarterback Brian Hoyer). Could Ward have tackled a bit higher? Yes, but at the same time, that could have given Gronkowski a better chance to run through him.
6. The ensuing play, quarterback Tom Brady's fumble, was probably partially a result of Brady's frustration to that point as he was just trying too hard to make something happen after right tackle Will Svitek was pushed back into the pocket by Paul Kruger. Brady usually eats that football with the mindset of “living to play another down.”
7. The Patriots' sub packages continued to have issues with the screen pass, surrendering a 13-yard gain on third-and-12 (7:24 remaining). On this play, the Patriots were in their dime and rushed four, so they needed second level defenders like linebacker Dane Fletcher and safety Duron Harmon to disengage and make a tackle -- or linemen to chase down the play from behind -- but they couldn't. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was also locked up by receiver Greg Little. While the Browns get some credit for execution, the Patriots' defense should be able to play it better than that.
8. On Gordon's 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run, the Patriots were in their base 3-4 alignment against the Browns' two-tight end set. At the snap, safety McCourty rotated down into the box on tight end Jordan Cameron, and left to right motion from tight end Barnridge also drew safety Steve Gregory down a few yards and to the defensive left side. Both tight ends released in pass routes, drawing McCourty and Gregory, and it looked like the Patriots had their linebackers coming on a six-man blitz, with Brandon Spikes responsible for the running back. That left Talib one-on-one and Gordon made them pay. That's the risk of blitzing; the defense is vulnerable on the back end if it doesn't get there.
9. The three-play, 72-yard scoring drive, in which running back Shane Vereen made all three plays (2 receptions, 1 rush), was a good reflection of how Vereen can be a tough matchup against linebackers in the passing game. That's a matchup the Patriots regularly look to exploit, especially now with Gronkowski on injured reserve as Vereen becomes one of their most dynamic weapons. The 6-yard touchdown run was well blocked, particularly by left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins.
10. Extra points: Safety Nate Ebner was close to a punt block as he surged in untouched with 5:31 remaining in the quarter. … Josh Boyce's 22-yard catch-and-run (5:19 remaining) was initially sprung by a low block from receiver Danny Amendola. … Maybe as a result of limiting his additional snaps because of an ankle injury, offensive tackle Will Svitek wasn't part of the field-goal protection unit, as guard Josh Kline took his spot. ... Running back LeGarrette Blount deserved an “up” for his performance, which included a 32-yard catch-and-run (2:53 remaining) in which he made linebacker D'Qwell Jackson miss in the open field to pick up the final 23 yards.
1. If fullback James Develin keeps making catches like he did up the right sideline -- a 31-yard gain with outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo in coverage (11:47 remaining) -- he’ll be a bigger part of the plans of how the team moves forward without tight end Rob Gronkowski. Develin initially lined up in the offensive backfield, motioned out to the right, before running an out-and-up route on the right sideline in which he fought through an initial jam. Develin looked like he was banged up, in some form, on the play and was looked at by the medical staff immediately after. But he later returned to the game.
2. We’ve seen several plays this season where the Patriots pull their guards to create play-action, and the results have been mixed. One of the downers came with 10:53 remaining in the second quarter when left guard Logan Mankins had a tough block coming from left to right on Mingo, and couldn’t get enough of him as Brady was sacked. That play ultimately set up a third-and-18 and led to a punt.
3. This was one of defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich's better games, as there were notable plays in the pass rush (good outside move on Mitchell Schwartz in the first quarter) and against the run. In the latter category, some of Ninkovich’s best work came with 8:59 left in the quarter when he dropped fullback Chris Ogbonnaya for a 1-yard loss. Ninkovich showed solid control and discipline at the snap, read the handoff, disengaged from Schwartz, then knifed his body into the middle to make the strong tackle. Also on that play, Sealver Siliga's ability to hold his ground stood out again.
4. Overall, just not a very sure-handed performance. Almost every player was responsible for at least drop and some were easy catches. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce, for example, looked like he was thinking run-after-the-catch before he did the all-important catching part on a short pass (7:04 remaining).
5. Credit to the Browns for matching the Patriots when it came to situational football at the end of the second quarter, with Josh Gordon's scoop-it-off-the-turf third-down catch one of the underrated plays of the game for them. The Browns also avoided a turnover throughout the game, which is another big part of the potential winning formula when playing the Patriots.
6. The Patriots did something different on their kickoff return unit, aligning a smaller player (running back Shane Vereen) at the same level of the wedge (Develin and tight end Matthew Mulligan), as they sacrificed some size on the unit with returners Matthew Slater and Boyce back deep. On Dec. 1 in Houston, they had tight end D.J. Williams in that role and he could assume it again after re-signing this week.
The team also officially re-signed tight end D.J. Williams, as Mike Reiss reported earlier today.
Gronkowski becomes the fifth starter to land on injured reserve this season, joining nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
He left the team's game on Sunday in the third quarter after taking a hit to his right knee from Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Gronkowski played in seven games this season, totaling 39 catches, 592 yards and four touchdowns.
By re-signing Williams, the Patriots add another veteran reserve at the position. The team also has Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin, who has taken reps at the position at times this season.
FALL RIVER, Mass. -- An attorney for a so-called "right-hand man" of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez wants more information from state prosecutors about the accessory to murder charge his client faces.
Ernest Wallace's lawyers filed the request Monday in Fall River Superior Court ahead of a brief hearing.
Wallace has pleaded not guilty to accessory to murder after the fact and is being held on $500,000 cash bail. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-professional football player.
Prosecutors say Wallace and associate Carlos Ortiz were with Hernandez and Lloyd on the June night Lloyd was killed. They say Wallace fled to Florida after the killing.
The defense wants more specifics on how Wallace's alleged actions helped Hernandez.
The prosecution's response is due Jan 9.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Patriots offense will be much less explosive without Rob Gronkowski
According to ESPN and Media reports, Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending ACL and MCL tear after being upended by safety T.J. Ward in the third quarter of yesterday’s game. This is a significant blow to the Patriots, who came back to beat the Browns and secure their 11th consecutive season with at least 10 wins.
What Gronk means to the Pats Offense
The Patriots go back to "life without Gronk" which was not a pretty sight the first time around this season. The Patriots offense ranked among the league's worst the first six weeks of the year when they last played without the tight end.
The Patriots are second in the league in points per game since Gronkowski made his season debut in Week 7, scoring over 11 more points per game than they did in the first six weeks of the season.
They ranked in the top five in most offensive categories with him in the lineup this season.
The Red Zone
The Patriots have also been much more effective in the red zone. The Patriots scored a touchdown on 68.8 percent of their red zone trips this season with Gronkowski on the field. When he was inactive in the first six weeks of the season, New England scored a touchdown on 40.9 percent of red zone possessions.
Since Gronkowski’s forearm injury in Week 11 of last season, he has missed 11 of the Patriots next 20 games (including playoffs) during that span.
Is Brady better with Gronk?
Since Gronk entered the league in 2010, Tom Brady has been significantly more effective with Gronkowski on the field. Through Week 13 of 2013, Brady has a 78.5 Total QBR with Gronkowski on the field. Brady has a 59.0 QBR without Gronk on the field. Brady has thrown 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronkowski on the field. That ratio drops to 2.2 touchdowns per interception with Gronkowski on the sideline.
This season, the connection between Brady and Gronkowski was not as strong as their first three years together. From 2010 to 2012, Brady threw only two interceptions to go along with 38 touchdowns when targeting Gronk.
This season, Brady threw four interceptions when targeting Gronk to go along with only only four touchdowns. Brady completed 59.1 percent of his passes to Gronkowski this year after completing 72.2 percent of his passes to Gronkowski in their first three seasons together.