INDIANAPOLIS -- While Patriots coach Bill Belichick has disarmed the media for much of New England’s first two days in Indy with some one-liners and great stories about the old Giants’ coaching staff, when it came to the subject of tight end Rob Gronkowski on Monday, it was business as usual.
On the heels of a 522-word answer to a question about his time with the Giants and a 263-word answer to a question about Deion Branch, Belichick was asked about the status of Gronkowski.
“He didn’t practice today,” Belichick said, and that was that.
Gronkowski was held out of the first day of practices for the Patriots in Indy. It was a padded practice for New England at the Colts’ indoor facility, and the third consecutive missed practice for the tight end since he suffered a high left ankle sprain in the AFC championship game against the Ravens.
The second-year tight end has emerged as one of the most potent offensive options in the game over the course of the last year, coming away with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in the regular season, the final stat a record for a tight end.
Eminently durable (according to Pro Football Focus, he was third on the team in offensive snaps this season with 1,245, trailing only Tom Brady, who had 1,285 and Brian Waters with 1,275) and reliable (he caught 90 of the 124 passes thrown in his direction this year), Gronkowski is a key figure in the New England offense by any measure. He’s even improved as a blocker – PFF had him graded as the best run blocker on the team at +4.9.
The Giants said Monday they are preparing for any possibility involving Gronkowski.
“You know what? If he plays, I am sure he is going to help that football team out. If he doesn’t, I am sure they’ve got other plans,” Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said of Gronkowski. “They have a lot of weapons on that team -- it’s not just about him. I don’t know. I’m sure they’ve got something planned to counter the fact that he won’t be 100 percent. But we’re not approaching it any different than if he wasn’t 100 percent. We are going to approach it like he is 100 percent.”
Here are four other things we learned Monday in Indianapolis:
OCHOCINCO WON’T GET A PODIUM
It now appears that wide receiver Chad Ochocinco will not garner his own podium at Tuesday’s “Media Day.” A follower asked Ochocinco on Monday if he planned on something special for Tuesday, but he Tweeted back: Can’t talk. Strep throat. Ochocinco is expected to be in attendance, like every participant in every Super Bowl, but will be off to the side. Eighteen podiums will be set up on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium for the one-hour availability, with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Tom Brady, Wes Welker and BenJarvus Green-Ellis all among those who will get their own podium. (For more on this story, click here.)
BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS IS GOING TO BE A BIG PART OF THINGS SUNDAY
The running back was at less than his best when these two teams met the first time around -- while he did finish with 12 carries and 52 yards, it was not the sort of game New England football fans had come to expect out of Green-Ellis over the last two seasons. (Likely because of a toe injury, Green-Ellis was in the midst of a rough stretch – that outing against the Giants was wrapped around a nine-yard outing against the Steelers and an eight-yard game against the Jets.)
But there are several things that point to a big game for Green-Ellis Sunday against New York. First, it’s clear that Green-Ellis is healthier now than he was back in November -- his performance against the Ravens is certainly proof of that. Second, the Giants’ defense is geared to stop the pass, sometimes rolling four defensive ends as a unique pass-rushing package that can slow down even the best quarterbacks.
New York wants to stop the Patriots’ passing game first – in the regular-season meeting between New England and New York, the Giants had at least five defensive backs on the field at all times. For a New York defense that will almost certainly be geared to stopping the likes of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, there should be some opportunities in the running game for Green-Ellis.
As for Green-Ellis, even on the biggest stage of his career, he’s content to steer clear of the spotlight. He was asked Monday if he ever feels overlooked when it comes to the pecking order of the New England offense.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I think we have some of the best players in the league at their positions and I think we utilize them and whatever the best things they can do. They help us win a lot of football games and hopefully they can continue to do those things.”
And despite the fact that you can get 22-1 odds on him as a possible Super Bowl MVP, Green-Ellis, he wants no part of any of that.
“We just want to go out there and perform as a team and win because any type of award you get is only because of the other 10 guys on the field with you at that particular time,” he said. “It’s an award that whatever it is, it’s a team thing.”
DEFENDING VICTOR CRUZ REMAINS A QUESTION
The first time around, the Giants were missing Hakeem Nicks, and Cruz still hit them for six catches for 91 yards. This time, Nicks is ready to roll, which will make it even harder to try and slow down the former UMass pass catcher. There are several different possibilities as to how the Patriots will try and take down Cruz out of the slot, but don’t look for New England to try and utilize too much man coverage on him – if the Giants look over and see Julian Edelman lined up against Cruz one-on-one, look for them to exploit that matchup.
Instead, Greg Cosell of NFL Films suggests that the Patriots may try and take the same approach to Cruz that they did against Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI – that is to say, they’ll put a “bullseye” on him and try and slow him down off the line with some physical play in hopes of disrupting his route. Cosell (who notes that Cruz gets 75 percent of his receptions and 77 percent of his yards while in the slot) suggests Rob Ninkovich in that primary role, something linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest did quite well against Faulk and the Rams.
Regardless, Cruz is well aware he had some big play chances the first time around, and he said Monday that he’s looking for more of those on Sunday.
“The first time we played them, we had some pretty big plays against them,” Cruz said. “It’s going to take a few more practices to make sure we understand the coverages and understand what we’re facing. But we definitely see some opportunities to hit the big play on them. With us at full strength, we’re a tough team to stop. It’s going to be a good game. Whenever you give (Bill) Belichick two weeks to prepare, he’s going to have some things up his sleeve.’’
Devin McCourty will likely get plenty of opportunity against Cruz, whether as a cornerback or deep safety. He knows that Cruz will be a handful.
“The guy has made plays throughout the whole season. We’re just going to have to compete hard against him and make things tough for him,” McCourty said of Cruz. “He’s going to get targeted a bunch of times. When they throw the ball, they spread it out, but they like to get the ball to certain guys. He’s going to make his plays but we’ve got to make sure we make ours.”
THERE’S NO QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY, BUT THERE MIGHT BE ONE AT RIGHT TACKLE
Belichick dropped a major hint on Monday, saying that veteran right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been improving over the last few weeks and could be ready to go come Sunday.
“Sebastian has gotten a lot better over the last few weeks,” Belichick said. “He came out of his cast, I’d say, before the Denver game. And then he practiced last week before the Baltimore game, and I would say he was close, but obviously, he wasn’t ready to go, and we didn’t activate him. This week, he is further along than where he was before the Denver game. He practiced (Monday), so we will see how the week goes and see how he holds up. But I think there is definitely a possibility.”
That presents an interesting problem for the New England offensive line: Do you go with Vollmer, the veteran who was the starter at right tackle when he was healthy? Or do you stick with rookie Nate Solder, who has played the majority of snaps at right tackle over the last two months and has done a very good job along the way?
Considering the fact that he has been asked to play multiple positions (including tight end), the rookie out of Colorado has performed very well. He’s not going to be named to any All Pro teams, but he has consistently graded out by PFF as positive against the run and the pass. Meanwhile, Vollmer has struggled over the course of the season, and hasn’t played any snaps at all since a Week 9 win over the Eagles. Since then, he’s been hampered by back and foot issues.
With Vollmer out, Solder has picked up the mantle, only missing 19 snaps since a Week 14 win over Denver. There have been rough patches (he struggled against the Eagles and the Colts, including a -3.7 in pass blocking against Indianapolis), but for the most part, he has played well, especially as of late. PFF has him graded out at a +2.9 while as the right tackle in the divisional playoffs against Denver
The return of Vollmer would give the Patriots more versatility, especially when it comes to those multiple tight end sets. (That’s something New England featured the last time around against the Giants. In that one, Vollmer started at right tackle, but Solder was on the field as an extra blocking tight end on 23 of 78 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.) But when it comes to building consistency and continuity along New England’s offensive line (a group that has seen four different starting centers and seven different starting lineup combination), Solder has earned the right to start because of his play down the stretch.