FOXBORO -- For the second time in as many seasons, it appears the Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski. The big tight end reportedly suffered a broken arm in the waning moments of Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts (click here for the complete recap), and is expected to be on the shelf for 4-6 weeks.
Of course, the Patriots have been down this road before -- Gronkowski suffered a high ankle sprain in last year’s AFC title game, which clearly limited him in the Super Bowl. However, this would mark the first time in his two-plus seasons in the league that Gronkowski will miss an extended stretch.
How does the New England offense adapt without its record-setting tight end? For what it’s worth, the Patriots do appear to be in a relatively better situation than they were last year. Despite an inconsistent evening against the Colts, the New England running game has brought a greater sense of balance to the offense than has been seen in years -- Stevan Ridley has evolved into one of the best young backs in the AFC and can provide a consistent ground game the likes of which the Patriots haven’t had in a long time.
Then, there’s wide receiver: While the Patriots likely would prefer more positional depth at wide receiver (paging Deion Branch ...) the presence of Brandon Lloyd provides far more to Tom Brady and the offense than Chad Johnson did at any point last season. Wes Welker undoubtedly will get more looks, and Julian Edelman (who accounted for more than 200 total yards on Sunday, including five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown) will find more opportunities in an offense without Gronkowski.
But the real wild card in all of this is Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski’s running mate has been hobbled since suffering an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals and has been on the cusp of a full-fledged return the last few weeks. (He likely tried to return too quickly earlier this year, which led to another setback.) If Hernandez can return sooner rather than later, it would bring a jolt to the passing game and should provide the offense with the necessary oomph needed to get through what should be an interesting stretch.
The one area where Gronkowski simply cannot be replaced is the red zone. There’s no more proficient presence there than Gronkowski, who is an undefendable nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators when the Patriots are inside the 20.
(It’s also worth noting that both tight ends have been dealing with moderate to severe injury problems since Hernandez went down against Arizona. As previously stated, Hernandez likely tried to come back too early from his ankle issue and had a setback that further complicated matters. And Gronkowski has been on and off the injury list over the first two months of the season with a hip injury. There have been many times when he’s appeared noticeably hobbled.)
In the short term, expect the Patriots to run the ball a lot more than they have. New England will face the Jets on Thursday, and the Jets entered Sunday’s game against the Rams as one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to defending the run (30th at 145 yards allowed per game). But in the long term, life without Gronkowski will be an interesting experiment for a New England offense that has come to rely heavily on No. 87.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
BEFORE HE GOT HURT, GRONKOWSKI LOOKED A LOT LIKE HE DID AT THE END OF LAST YEAR
It’s too bad Gronkowski went down with an arm injury -- one he reportedly suffered while working as a blocker on New England’s final extra point of the game -- because to that point on the day, he submitted a performance that looked an awful lot like last year.
Gronkowski was fundamentally unstoppable for most of the afternoon, coming away with seven catches (on seven targets) for 137 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Included in that performance were pass plays of 31 and 36 yards (the latter coming in the first half on a vintage Brady-to-Gronk connection down the seam). On New England’s first scoring drive of the afternoon, he accounted for 56 of the 81 yards from scrimmage, including a 4-yard touchdown pass from Brady that gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
“He is such a big body and fluid receiver,” Indy safety Tom Zbikowski said of Gronkowski. “It’s not like he’s going to burn you with his speed, but he finds a way to get open every time. And they also have a pretty good quarterback that can put it where he needs it.”
Brady was asked why teams don’t try to double-cover the tight end, who has 53 catches for 748 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.
“Well, they try. I think it’s definitely something they try,” Brady said. “It’s just hard because, do you want to blitz? Do you not want to blitz?
“When you’re a tight end, you’re really in the inside part of the field and you can run basically anywhere you want,” he added. “As a tight end, you can go to the right, left, deep, short; you can really do whatever you want. And the more guys you put on them, the less there are on Wes, the less guys you have rushing, the less on Brandon, Julian. That’s why it’s team football.”
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS DESERVE SOME CREDIT
As much maligned as any positional grouping in recent memory, the Patriots defensive backs enjoyed some easy laughs among themselves after the game, with Devin McCourty goofing on rookie Alfonzo Dennard for his glasses and the fact that he almost got chased down from behind by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on his interception return for a touchdown.
“I went to the sideline and Devin was like, ‘If the quarterback would’ve caught you, you know we would have given you stuff about it,’ ” Dennard said with a smile.
The day didn’t start on an up note. A mysterious tweet from safety Patrick Chung -- who was inactive because of injury for the fourth straight game -- raised some eyebrows. And the fact that Luck was able to guide the Indy offense to touchdowns on their first two possessions also didn’t help matters. (Luck had 67 passing yards on the Colts' first two possessions, and he was helped by a pass interference call on Kyle Arrington that accounted for 40 more yards.)
But things quickly turned around. Aqib Talib’s second-quarter pick was his first as a Patriot, and that was followed by Dennard’s interception in the second half. In between, there were no fewer than six passes from Luck that were batted down or deflected and nearly resulted in more interceptions, and the rookie’s passer rating of 63.3 was the lowest of any starting signal-caller New England has faced this season.
“Obviously, they created a lot of turnovers. When they did intercept the ball they did a great job of running it back. [I’m] disappointed in myself for committing four turnovers on my part, and two of those went for immediate touchdowns. They did a good job,” Luck said. “I think they were the right reads, just some high balls -- [a] ball behind the guy. But hindsight’s 20/20, though. I wish I could have them back, but you learn from it.”
In the end, the Patriots had three picks, the second most they’ve had on the year. (They had four in the Sept. 30 win over the Bills in Buffalo.) They also had a season-high 11 passes defensed. And it marked the first time all season the Patriots defense was able to make a significant dent in the scoreboard, coming away with a pair of touchdowns of its own.
“Yeah, that’s big,” McCourty said when asked about the two defensive touchdowns. “You talk about going out and trying to stop an offense and getting turnovers and all those good things, but when you score points, that really lifts your team up. So to come out and score two touchdowns on defense -- and then a lot of those guys who play defense are on special teams, so to help Julian get in the end zone on the punt return -- that’s big. When our offense doesn’t have to score 21 points and then to put on top of the points they’re already scoring, we end up with a big turnout.”
One other stat of note: Reggie Wayne, who had been chewing up opposing pass defenses all season long (he was at or near the top of almost every major receiving category coming into Sunday’s game) was essentially rendered a nonfactor, finishing with seven catches on 18 targets for 72 yards. That line included four catches for 28 yards in the first half. A review of the film will determine who was the most responsible for keeping him in check, but you have to figure that the defensive backs played a sizable role.
ONCE AGAIN, NOT ALL TAKEAWAYS ARE CREATED EQUAL
The Patriots forced four takeaways this week, and through 10 games (barring something crazy happening on Monday night in the Bears-49ers game) that plus-20 on the season is best in the league. But it’s not just that they’re continuing to force takeaways -- it’s that they are getting them at the right time and turning them into points. Last week against the Bills, three of the takeaways were possible game-changers. This week, it was the same story, as three of the four takeaways were converted almost immediately into points.
Both Talib and Dennard ran their picks back for touchdowns, marking the first time since 2002 that the Patriots were able to return two interceptions for scores. They were fun to watch for a couple of reasons: First, Talib did a stellar job using blockers and setting things up for him to make it 59 yards to the end zone. Second, Dennard picked off Luck in the second half, and had to sneak a peak at the scoreboard to make sure he was able to outrun the quarterback on the way to the end zone.
Meanwhile, Rob Ninkovich posted his fifth forced fumble of the season late in the third quarter when he strip-sacked Luck and came away with the ball. (On the next play, Brady found Gronkowski for a 24-yard touchdown pass that effectively ended the game.) The Patriots finished things off with a final interception from Tavon Wilson (his fourth of the year), this one coming in the fourth quarter.
“Having our defense get a lot of turnovers is one of the best things we do,” Ninkovich said. “Obviously, there are some things that you don’t want to give up -- yardage and stuff like that. But when you can lead the league in turnovers, that speaks a lot for what we do on defense. We might give up a yard here or there, but when you’re turning the ball over, especially to our offense that’s going to score every time they get the ball, it just sets you up to be good in the fourth quarter.”
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE IS ON A NICE ROLL
For the second time in three games, the offensive line was able to keep Brady from being sacked. When he was pressured at various times, Brady was able to scramble and keep some plays alive with his feet, but at the same time, the line did a good job keeping the Indy pass rush at bay.
After the game, Brady -- who has been sacked once in the last 14-plus quarters dating back to the Oct. 21 win over the Jets -- praised the work of the offensive line, which was without starting guards Logan Mankins on the left and Dan Connolly on the right. (Donald Thomas started in place of Mankins and Nick MacDonald got the call on the right side for Connolly.)
“It was a great effort, [and] I think it starts with those guys,” Brady said of an offensive line that did not allow a sack for the second time in three weeks. “When they play well, we play well. They way they were blocking up front in the run game and the pass game, I was able to make my reads, make my throws, and our receivers were doing a great job getting open. That’s what we needed. It was a defense that is very unique and puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, and our guys really stepped up.”
“Our job is to keep Tom safe,” center Ryan Wendell said. “That’s the most important thing, and I don’t know, but I think we can always do better. Usually I have my back to him, so if I’m ever seeing Tom it’s not very good, so hopefully when we watch the film we did a good enough job. But there’s always things to improve on, so I’m sure we’ll be back at it next week.”
SPECIAL TEAMS CONTINUES TO BUILD ON ITS SUCCESS
Punt returner Julian Edelman was at the heart of a big day for New England’s specialists, coming away with his first punt return for a touchdown on the season when he delivered a 68-yard return in the second quarter.
With New England trailing 14-7 with just over 12 minutes left in the first quarter, it appeared the Patriots were going to be involved in a shootout with the young and aggressive Indy offense. But after New England forced a three-and-out (with a pair of batted passes, courtesy of Vince Wilfork and Dont’a Hightower), Colts punter Pat McAfee delivered a 47-yard punt to Edelman, who was standing on the New England 32-yard line.
On the play, there were some impressive cuts by the former college quarterback, who tiptoed along the New England sideline on the way to the end zone and never really had to break tackles on the way to the third return for a touchdown for his career.
It put the capper on an impressive afternoon for Edelman, who caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, and broke off a 47-yard run in the fourth quarter where he came within three yards of reaching the end zone.
“I tell you right now, we’ve been working real hard as a unit to get that done and create an explosion play on the punt return unit,” said Edelman, who had 222 all-purpose yards for the Patriots. “Guys have been working their tail off, and they executed what they had to do, got their guys.”
That performance was in addition to the work of punter Zoltan Mesko (two punts that averaged 57 yards) and McCourty, who averaged a respectable 23.5 yards per return on his four chances. And while Stephen Gostkowski missed a 36-yard field goal attempt, he nailed a 31-yarder and all eight of his PATs.
THERE ARE DAYS WHEN TOM BRADY DOESN’T MIND NOT WORKING
There was a stretch of nearly seven minutes in the second quarter where Brady wasn’t on the field, but in that time, the Patriots went from a 14-7 deficit to a 21-17 advantage, taking the lead for good on Talib’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown with 10:59 left in the half.
The time away did nothing to take away from Brady’s game. After a slow start, the Patriots scored touchdowns on four of their six possessions in the second half, and the quarterback finished the afternoon 24-for-35 for 331 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I’ll take it if we’re scoring, so it didn’t matter much,” Brady said when asked about sitting for an extended stretch. “The punt return for a touchdown, the interception return for a touchdown, those were awesome, so when you get those types of plays, those are game-changing plays. I don’t remember too many times when we’ve lost games when we’ve gotten returns for touchdowns.”
He did well in the second, but Brady and the offense really started clicking in the third quarter. New England first put together a 10-play, 76-yard drive that had just one negative play from scrimmage and was highlighted by 31-yard pass play from Brady to Gronkowski on which the tight end tip-toed down the sideline and got the Patriots into the red zone. (Edelman finished things off with a 4-yard touchdown grab from Brady.)
IT WAS AN UNDERWHELMING EFFORT FOR THE RUNNING GAME
The Patriots had managed to display great offensive balance over most of the first nine games of the season, but for whatever reason -- scheme, play-calling, offensive rhythm or solid run defense from Indy -- New England was unable to find much of a groove on the ground Sunday afternoon.
The box score is not truly representative of the ground attack, as Edelman’s 47-yarder in the second half on an end around left New England with 115 rushing yards on 25 carries (four of which were negative), which represented an impressive 4.6 yards a carry. But Stevan Ridley managed just 28 yards on 13 carries (three negative runs) for a 2.2 YPC, while Shane Vereen added 40 yards on 11 yards (a slightly most respectable 3.6 YPC). And Sunday’s game marked the first time all year that Danny Woodhead did not have a single offensive opportunity -- no carries, no receptions -- in a game.
For Ridley, who has become the workhorse of the New England running game (he entered the game with 814 yards through the first nine games, good enough for sixth in the league), his 28 yards represented a season-low, while his 2.2 yards per carry was second only to his 2.1 he posted earlier in the year against the Seahawks.
In the grand scheme of things, it might seem like nitpicking to worry about an uneven running performance in the wake of a 59-point outburst. But with the injury to Gronkowski, all facets of the offense will be asked to step up, and the backs are no exception.
GRONKOWSKI ISN’T THE ONLY INJURED NAME TO KEEP AN EYE ON THIS WEEK
The Patriots saw their most consistent pass-rushing presence of 2012 go down in the first half when defensive end Chandler Jones limped off with a right ankle injury and did not return. The rookie out of Syracuse, who entered Sunday’s game leading the team in quarterback hits (nine) and tied with Rob Ninkovich for the team lead in sacks (six for 33 yards), was on the sideline for the rest of the game with his right ankle heavily taped.
With Jones out, the Pats made some personnel tweaks. They flipped Ninkovich from one side to the other, while Jermaine Cunningham spent most of the rest of the game at Ninkovich’s old spot. (Trevor Scott also saw some time at defensive end.) The Patriots didn’t appear to miss much of a beat, as Ninkovich was able to get after Luck and knock the ball away. The defense also finished the game with six quarterback hits -- two each from Ninkovich and Cunningham and one each from Hightower and Brandon Spikes.
“It’s unfortunate,” Ninkovich said of Jones' injury. “Whatever it is, he’ll be working hard to come back. [I was] able to just flip sides and take that right side there.”
THE PATRIOTS CAN START PUTTING THE FINISHING TOUCHES ON THE DIVISION THIS WEEK
On Sunday, the Patriots continued to put space between themselves and the rest of the division. With the win, New England moved to 7-3, three games up on the Jets, Bills and Dolphins, all of whom rest at 4-6. A win over the Jets on Thanksgiving night would move the Patriots to 8-3 and allow them to keep their lead at least three games with five to play.
Barring a monumental collapse, it would all but secure a divisional title for New England, and allow the Dec. 10 game at home against the Texans to have some real import when it comes to figuring out various home-field scenarios.
(Realistically, that Texans game is also the first possible “hat and T-shirt” game for this Patriots team, thanks to various tiebreaking scenarios that could come into play. The phrase was coined by former linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who lived for those games because, in his words, those were the games where you found swag waiting at your locker because you won the division.)
Of course, you’re not going to get any one of the Patriots to look that far down the road.
“We’ve got a lot of football left, and this Thursday is going to be a big game,” Brady said. “So, I look forward to it.”