Sunday, September 18, 2011
Gronkowski, Hernandez shine
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Combining to catch all three of Tom Brady's touchdowns in another monster offensive effort? Just another day at the office for Patriots second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
After New England beefed up its receiver corps this offseason, the tight ends have emerged as the focal point of an offense that has passed for 940 yards over the first two weeks of the season. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 11 receptions for 148 yards and all three of the Patriots' touchdowns in Sunday's 35-21 triumph over the San Diego Chargers.
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 11 catches, 148 yards and three touchdowns Sunday.
"It is what it is," said Gronkowski, reaching for the favorite phrase in the New England locker room. "Everyone's doing a great job -- the [offensive] line, the wide receivers. Whatever the play call is, that's what you've got to go out and execute. And then you've got to keep it up, too."
That hasn't been a problem for these two. After combining for 87 catches for 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns during their rookie campaigns, the duo has already paired up for 24 receptions for 337 yards and five touchdowns in two weeks this season.
Think about that for a moment. Projected out over a 16-game season, these two tight ends are on pace for 192 catches for 2,696 yards and 40 touchdowns. Seems impossible to maintain, right? Well, obviously no one's figured out exactly how to take them away quite yet.
"The tight end position has been a very important for us," said Brady. "We rely on Aaron [Hernandez] and Dan [Gronkowski], along with Rob, to make the plays when they're called upon. They certainly did that."
"We have great coaches that put us in the position to make some plays and Tom finds us and we just try to make plays when we get the chance," Hernandez said.
Hernandez makes it look so simple sometimes. New England scored on its first offensive possession of the game with Hernandez leaping over safety Bob Sanders on a 14-yard touchdown grab that capped a 12-play, 93-yard drive.
"[Brady] alerted the call, one high safety, and he threw a great ball," Hernandez said. "I just tried to make a play for him."
From there, it was Gronkowski's chance to shine -- helping atone for some earlier struggles that included getting beat for a sack on the opening drive, then getting flagged for holding later in the first frame.
Gronkowski hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass while absorbing a big hit from safety Eric Weddle to put the Patriots out front 17-7 in the second quarter. On the second play of the second half, he reeled in a 30-yard pass from Brady -- a career high. He capped his night with a 17-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter that gave New England a 28-14 cushion.
"Basically, just having that little post route and just got to get big, no matter where the safety is," Gronkowski said of his second touchdown grab. "Tom made a nice throw, just got to go make that play wherever Tom puts it."
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Amidst all the production from Gronkowski and Hernandez, San Diego's all-world tight end Antonio Gates didn't have a single catch in Sunday's game, virtually erased by safety shadowing from Patrick Chung and Sergio Brown.
"You can't really take him away; you just compete against him," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "[Philip] Rivers is good and so he found some other guys and they ran the ball, they threw it. But the guys that covered them -- [Patrick] Chung, Sergio -- the linebackers tried to jam them. We tried to make it hard for them, but you just try to compete against him. You can't really stop him."
Just like other teams can't really stop New England's tight end duo.
About the only negative Sunday: Hernandez suffered a knee injury that forced him out of the game at one point. He was spotted in the locker room limping after the game. But asked about the injury he just smiled and said: "I'm a little sore. We'll see what it is. I'm just getting ready for this next game."
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.