Commentary

Aaron Hernandez commands attention

Patriots 'other' tight end steps out of the shadows with career day against Broncos

Updated: December 18, 2011, 11:26 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

DENVER -- The way Aaron Hernandez sees it, the Broncos absolutely employed the right defense against him Sunday. And, no, he's not saying that because it resulted in the best statistical day of his NFL career.

No, if he were a defensive coordinator, Hernandez said, he'd do exactly what the Broncos did: Load up on fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski and force Hernandez to make plays.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, Hernandez did just that.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWith fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski bottled up, Aaron Hernandez took a turn in the end zone.

While Gronkowski endured one of his quieter days this season -- the Broncos didn't have to watch him spike a football, which is more than New England's last six opponents can say -- Hernandez took advantage by posting career highs with nine catches for 129 yards in a 41-23 Patriots triumph at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Hernandez scored one touchdown (and thought he had another) and was Tom Brady's favorite target (11 balls came his way) on a day when the Broncos did their best to take away both Wes Welker (4 catches, 44 yards) and Gronkowski (4 catches, 53 yards) as the Patriots operated with a Deion Branch-less receiving corps.

Hernandez was a particular help when Brady was under pressure. He had five receptions on five targets, including his touchdown, for 96 yards when the Broncos sent extra pass rushers.

Teams are finding out the hard way that it's nearly impossible to take away both Gronkowski and Hernandez.

"I don't know why any team wouldn't," Hernandez said of keying on Gronkowski. "He's 6-7, 260, good speed … It just leaves me some opportunities to make some plays for the team."

So instead of watching a kaboom! spike from Gronkowski, the Broncos were forced to view Hernandez make it rain. His 1-yard touchdown grab at 8:43 of the second quarter ignited a 27-point outburst by New England that turned a nine-point deficit into a 34-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

"I just tried to get open, make some plays, and Tom came to me," Hernandez said with a shrug.

Said Gronkowski: "That's how it always works. If they focus on me, well, Aaron's a great player, you've got to focus on him too. We have great wide receivers out there too. And sometimes they focus on him a lot, which gets me open. It works great. I love playing with him. When everyone's working together as an offense, Tom just finds the open guy and hits them."

Hernandez has quietly lurked in Gronkowski's shadow this season. While Gronkowski has already etched his name atop the NFL record books with the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in a season, Hernandez is quietly putting together a pretty noteworthy season himself.

Despite missing two games with a knee injury (that likely limited him even when he was back on the field), Hernandez already has exceeded his rookie numbers by catching 68 passes for 736 yards and six touchdowns (he had 45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns last season).

Gronkowski and Welker might draw more headlines, but Hernandez is showing that teams must account for him too.

"Aaron's a heck of a player," Welker said. "He's tough to cover 1-on-1 and doing some different things out there. He's a big mismatch for a lot of defenses. Getting him involved, and him making the plays he did, is huge for us. I'm sure he'll continue to do that."

All the pregame hype centered on Tim Tebow, but by the end of the game it was Denver's quarterback who was praising his former University of Florida teammate.

In fact, Tebow took a shot at all of the teams that passed on Hernandez in the 2010 draft when he slid to the Patriots in the fourth round.

"I wish he didn't [have a big game] against us, but good for him," Tebow said. "He's a great kid and great player, and I'm so proud of him and how hard he's worked and what he's overcome. I'm not necessarily sure why. I guess you could say New England is smart for taking him, but they also waited until the fourth round, so a lot of teams passed on a great player and one of the best tight ends in the league in my opinion.

"I was happy to have him on my team for a long time, and it's not always fun to play against him."

Hernandez said he caught up with Tebow before and after Sunday's game and stressed how he was likewise proud of what Tebow has accomplished in Denver, becoming the biggest story in the NFL this season. The two promised to stay in touch moving forward.

Opposing defenses should take a similar approach with Hernandez. But any extra attention might just open things back up for Gronkowski.

"That's one thing about us, we're never really competing with each other -- we see each other as one," Hernandez said of Gronkowski. "We both work together. When he has a great game, I'm happy for him; when I have a great game, I know he's happy for me. We work off each other. And the reason I had a good game is because they were more focused on him. And when they're focused on me, he's probably going to have a bigger game. We work together."

Gronkowsi stressed that it doesn't matter to him which of the two emerges with the better numbers. Decked out in his new AFC East champions T-shirt, Gronkowski said all that matters is the final score.

"It's a team game, it doesn't matter who has the big game, as long as we get the W," he said. "We got the W tonight, we whooped some booty, so we're good."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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