Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Patriots' pass catchers emerging with Gronkowski leading the way

Running over folks, Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski proved on Sunday that he is back to his dominant self.

Rob Gronkowski gathered in a Tom Brady bullet at the Chicago Bears' 30 yard line, his forward momentum taking him towards the numbers on the visitors' sideline where Bears' safety Ryan Mundy converged on the New England Patriots' star tight end at the NFL logo on the 25 yard line.

Now, Mundy isn't a smallish man, and in his six years in the league he has reached his prime and has gained a measure of veteran savvy - and at least enough intelligence to know what would happen to him if he tried to take on the mammoth man-child all by his lonesome, so he took the safe route and opted to try and tie up and slow down Gronkowski long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

But what happened instead was a signature moment for the 2014 version of the Patriots - not so much because the play greatly contributed to their blow out victory over the Bears, nor that the win was the fourth straight for the team, nor that three of them were routs, even though all of those things are impressive enough all on their own...
Lafell has found his niche in New England

...but the fact that in one second that will be forever frozen in Patriots' lore, Gronkowski shoved Mundy aside like he was going through a set of swinging doors and rumbled the remaining distance to the goal line.

Gronkowski posterizing Mundy meant far more than a win against an obviously inferior opponent, as it signaled once and for all that the most dominant tight end in the league, "when healthy", is just that once again, which also means that the Patriots' offense is back to being nearly impossible to stop.

What's even more amazing is that the Patriots' offense has evolved into a big play entity with the key contributors being an odd mix of players that individually are decent playmakers, but when combined together form an attack that has got to have defensive coordinators scratching their heads as to how to combat it.

Sure, Julian Edelman is still the fireplug, but instead of being the target over and over again, he is now joined by the 6' 6", 265 pound Gronkowski in the pattern, with 6' 3", 210 pound yards-after-the-catch machine Brandon Lafell and 6' 4", 250 pound converted tight end Tim Wright starting to blossom in their roles - and with such size, strength and speed combined with Brady's new-found accuracy, the Patriots' pass catchers are a surrealistic nightmare of a matchup.

Even the notoriously feisty Brady, who will at times come very close to usurping the company line in times of emotional hyperbole, has nothing but praise for his targets and, in fact, compares the weapons surrounding him favorably to what their next opponent brings to the table.

"I love the guys I'm playing with.  I wouldn't change them for anybody." Brady quipped in a radio interview on Tuesday morning in response to a question about how his receiving corps compares to what Peyton Manning has to work with in Denver. "As a quarterback, you work all offseason with the group of guys and you develop a chemistry and a camaraderie with each other, and it's great when it all pays off.".

What many are failing to realize is that when Manning signed on with the Broncos after his LeBron James style, two-bit street walker act two-and-a-half years ago, he inherited a receiving corps that may have been young, but possessed the advantage of having had played together as a unit the previous season, and provided Manning with a ready-made arsenal that needed only a decent quarterback to make them realize their full potential...
Wright is looking more and more like the answer opposite Gronkowski

...while Brady has had to will the Patriots to victory by simply making due with what injury and attrition left him to work with, and all after having his offense pulled out from beneath him by Wes Welker's bloated opinion of himself and Aaron Hernandez' vicious affinity for firearms.

Those things threatened the Patriots' 2013 season, but Brady made due with a collection of rookies whose collective feel for the pro game was greatly oversold by the team's scouting staff.  Brady bitched and whined, but kept his offense in contention until offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels suddenly realized that he had a decent running game that ultimately powered New England's stretch run...

...a run that ended on a mild afternoon in Denver eight months ago in the AFC Championship game against a Broncos' team that shut down the Patriots' running game and forced Brady to rely on his "weapons", which consisted of Edelman, clearly hobbled receivers Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola and a top tight end option in Michael Hoomanawanui.

So Brady was forced to start over again in 2014, head ball coach Bill Belichick essentially admitting error in scrapping all three of his rookie pass catchers from 2013 in favor of an underachieving possession receiver from Carolina, a second year receiver-turned-tight end from Tampa and a speedy practice squadder from San Francisco who had to serve a four-game suspension to start the season.

All the while, hoping that Gronkowski and Amendola would round into form sometime before Thanksgiving and that Edelman would be able to come close to duplicating his career numbers from last season - and while it was touch and go for the first month of the season, the makeshift squad has started to emerge as one of the better pass catching corps in the league, and they are only going to get better.

As it turns out, Lafell wasn't an underachiever in Carolina, just misused and underused, while Wright's game has started to show some manifestations that suggest that the Patriots' tight end-centric attack isn't as dead as previously thought, as his potential has helped to soothe the sting of Belichick giving Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers to purchase him...

...Edelman is still Edelman, and though Amendola is still a work in progress, he has shown signs of starting to recover from last season's groin tear and is contributing on special teams - but the key is Gronkowski.

"he's a tough matchup" Brady said of Gronkowski to the press after the rout of Chicago, under-selling his impact. "He's big, fast and strong and when he plays like beast mode, he's tough to stop."

Whatever lunacy prompted the Chicago Bears' coaching staff to single cover Gronkowski - a plan so wrought with failure Bears' fans and beat writers are calling for coach Mark Tressman's head - is a lesson that the rest of New England's opponents would be wise to consider.

But not every team has the means to cover a healthy Gronkowski, and if they go into a dime to be able to double or even triple cover him, there is always Lafell, Edelman, Brian Tyms, Wright and Amendola - and the numbers suggest that at least one of them is going to be open...

...not to mention the effect that going against an emerging Patriots' power running game with a lightened box will have, should McDaniels choose to pursue the talent that he has in the backfield to their logical ends.

But is all of this enough to get past a Broncos' team on Sunday that appears to have the best collection of talent in the league?  Brady isn't going to touch that subject with a 10-foot-pole, but he seems to have an idea of what will be required.

"It was great to kind of get everyone in the flow and score a lot of points." Brady said of his offense after the rout of the Bears. "We needed that.  That's what it's going to take."

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