- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' offensive explosion in their 55-31 pasting of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday is bigger than any one player. But if you’d kindly oblige, we’d like to start with the player arguably most responsible for the surprising output.
Hello, tight end Rob Gronkowski.
With Gronkowski rounding into form, the Patriots' offense suddenly has a much different look. It’s more powerful in the running game, more diverse in the passing game and more flexible with the groupings offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can call upon.
Consider that the Steelers had never given up 55 points or 610 yards of total offense in their 81-year-history. But on Sunday they did against a team that has -- to be kind -- been offensively challenged in 2013. No one, including quarterback Tom Brady, saw this coming against the NFL’s second-ranked passing defense (in terms of yards against).
Welcome back, Gronk.
“When he’s healthy and on the field, he’s tough to stop,” Brady said after Gronkowski finished with a team-high nine catches for 143 yards and one touchdown, while also drawing a pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up another touchdown.
“He’s a great run-blocker and what he does for us in the passing game, it’s tough to match up. And if the attention goes to Gronk with extra coverage, it opens it up for all the other guys. He’s a big presence on our team and when he’s out there for every snap it’s going to be even better.”
That’s the thing. As good as Gronkowski was on Sunday, it’s hard to believe that wasn’t even the “full Gronk.”
Including penalties, Gronkowski was charted on the field for just 48 of 75 offensive snaps, a sign that he’s still working himself back into tip-top football shape as he comes back from four surgeries on his left forearm and one on his back since last November. He’s also been slowed by a hamstring injury over the past week.
“It felt good getting more games under me and I’m feeling good, getting better every week,” Gronkowski said in a celebratory locker room after players had earned an unprecedented six days off from coach Bill Belichick on their bye week. “When we’re clicking, we’re clicking and it’s awesome.”
They were especially clicking in the first half, when Gronkowski was at his best with seven catches for 119 yards and a 19-yard touchdown grab. That led the Steelers to put more emphasis on him in the second half, as he was routinely jammed at the line of scrimmage, sometimes by multiple players. That in turn opened up opportunities for others, and Brady was especially dialed in, identifying the soft spots and making the Steelers pay.
It was a snapshot of what the Patriots’ offense could be as it gets its top players back into the mix, with the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski the centerpiece.
“Rob and I haven’t played together a lot in games, but I can tell that defenses need to cover him with one or two guys, which means other guys have to make plays and be there,” said receiver Danny Amendola, who was a beneficiary in totaling four catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. “He’s a great player. Everybody tries to double-team him and do a lot of things to take him out of the game.”
The other part about Gronkowski’s reintegration into the offense is that his presence creates more flexibility with personnel groupings, which was evident as the Patriots ran more plays with two or more tight ends on the field Sunday (36 of 75) than they have in most games this season (112 of 593 entering the day).
The multiple tight-end groupings seemed aimed at creating more balance between the run and pass, which was especially effective. Yet it is an approach the Patriots probably wouldn’t have adopted if the top two options at the position were backups Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, because they don’t provide enough of a consistent threat in the passing game to call on them that often. That’s why the Patriots have run so many plays with three or more receivers on the field this season (385 of 593).
But things are changing a bit as Gronkowski starts to find his groove after three games back. And don’t look now but running back Shane Vereen is eligible to return for the team’s next game, Nov. 18 at Carolina.
With Brady himself answering some lingering questions -- is his hand OK, is age catching up to him, can he still throw the deep ball? -- the pieces are starting to fall into place.
But from this viewpoint, the biggest piece of all is Gronkowski, with Sunday a most decisive piece of evidence as to his value to the Patriots.