Commentary

Gronk, Hernandez in red-hot zone

Pats' second-year twin tight ends are a matchup nightmare, especially near goal line

Updated: November 20, 2011, 3:14 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the past, a Chiefs-Patriots matchup used to thrust the tight end position into the spotlight, heavily focusing on how New England would defend Tony Gonzalez. When Kansas City invades Gillette Stadium on "Monday Night Football" for the first meeting between the teams in three seasons, the script will be flipped a bit.

Patriots second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have emerged as tough covers for the opposition, and Kansas City coach Todd Haley raved about the duo this week. In fact, Haley suggested that the Chiefs had their eyes on both during the 2010 NFL draft while searching for their own replacement after Gonzalez departed for Atlanta the year before.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRob Gronkowski has 18 TD catches in 25 games, including this one against the Jets.

"Both these guys are really playing well. Hernandez and Gronkowski are players that I both, personally, really thought a lot of coming out [of college] and we spent time with both the guys at the combine," Haley said. "We spent a lot of time watching tape and [they're] players that [we] really, really thought had a chance to be good and they haven't disappointed."

The Chiefs -- helmed by former Patriots personnel man Scott Pioli -- likely took a hard look at Gronkowski when selecting with the 36th overall pick, but ultimately elected to draft running back Dexter McCluster. Gronkowski went to New England six spots later.

Kansas City landed its own tight end when it drafted Tony Moeaki in the third round (93rd overall), while Hernandez got swooped up by New England 20 spots later in the fourth round. Moeaki caught 47 passes for 556 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie campaign last season, but he went on injured reserve in September with a knee injury.

The Chiefs' ability to limit the Patriots' tight ends -- particularly around the end zone -- might be one of the key areas to watch Monday night, especially given the season Gronkowski is putting together. Through nine games, he has caught 52 passes for 709 yards and eight touchdowns. He's seventh in the NFL in receptions, ninth in receiving yardage and second in receiving touchdowns (three behind Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson). With two touchdown receptions last week against the Jets, Gronkowski looks poised to make a charge at the NFL record for TD receptions by a tight end in a season (13).

He's certainly caught Haley's eye again. In fact, Haley went so far as to compare Gronkowski to one of the Jets' most famous pass-catchers.

"Gronkowski is just a physical presence that -- much like some receivers that I've coached in the past like a Keyshawn [Johnson] or somebody like that -- that once the quarterback understands that you can throw it when he's covered, that's always a great trait, characteristic to have," said Haley. "If you're a guy catching the ball from the quarterback and the quarterback knows he can throw it when you're covered, which obviously Tom [Brady] does a bunch. That's just a testament to Rob and how good he is able to position and use his body to make catches on top of having just great, great hands."

Gronkowski's hands were on display last week when he went up, over and around Jets defenders on a routine basis, including an athletic touchdown grab over cornerback Donald Strickland in the third quarter.

As Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said with a sigh after last week's loss: "[Gronkowski] was outstanding. Him and Tom, they were connecting every chance they got."

Especially in the red zone, where Gronkowski caught both of his touchdowns. For the season, the Chiefs have allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 62.1 percent of trips into the red zone, which ranks 28th in the NFL. What's more, the Chiefs rank 31st in the league in stopping opponents in goal-to-go situations (82.4 percent touchdowns).

Conversely, the Patriots rank second in offensive red zone percentage (63.4 percent) and third in goal-to-go (80 percent). Much of that can be traced to Gronkowski and Hernandez.

Brady has completed 22 of 28 attempts -- a ridiculous 78.6 percent -- of his throws to the end zone intended for his tight end duo since the start of the 2010 season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. What makes that even more remarkable is that Brady has connected with his other receivers on only 10 of 38 throws -- a mere 26.3 percent -- during that same span.

Gronkowski and Hernandez actually boast the best percentage of receptions in that situation in the NFL amid some elite company (including 11-time Pro Bowler Gonzalez and his new QB in Atlanta, Matt Ryan):

The production of both tight ends has been so consistent over their first two seasons in the league that the Patriots hardly blink at their accomplishments. Asked about the duo this week, Brady noted, "Those two guys have been a big part of this offense and they're very mature and they work hard and they love football and obviously that's why they're a big part of what we're doing."

But it's how they do it. Hernandez can line up all at multiple positions and makes things happen after the catch. Gronkowski is just a big target and makes athletic plays not typically seen by players his size.

"He's got a big radius -- there are a lot of places that you can throw the ball that he can get to," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There's usually some place that a quarterback can throw the ball away from the defender that Rob can reach and the defender can't. Tom has done a good job of that, Rob has done a good job of anticipating those throws, like the touchdown against the Giants last week where the defender [Jacquian] Williams was inside, Tom put the ball on the backside of him and Rob was able to extend out there and get it.

"Those guys have developed a good chemistry -- worked a lot after practice on their timing against our defensive backs and linebackers. I'd say Rob and Aaron both, we expected both of them to be able to catch the ball and perform in the passing game and they've done that."

Enough that teams are left wondering about them the same way the Patriots used to game plan with Gonzalez in mind.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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