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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Tight ends

01.04.12 at 3:08 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’€™ve already broken down the running backs and quarterback. Now, it’€™s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns), Aaron Hernandez (79 catches, 910 yards, seven touchdowns).

Overview: In just over a year, the Patriots’€™ passing game has evolved from a system that had almost no input from the tight ends into one that has become more reliant on tight ends than any other passing game in the league. The combination of Hernandez and Gronkowski represents a matchup nightmare for almost every opposing defense in the NFL — Hernandez, who has the build of a wide receiver, can be used as an in-line blocker, in the slot or split wide, while Gronkowski’€™s size and catch radius make him one of the best and most dependable targets in the league.

Gronkowski set numerous marks this year: his 1,327 receiving yards were a new record for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end. In addition, he finished the season with 18 overall touchdowns (17 receiving, 1 rushing). His 17 overall touchdowns passed Curtis Martin (17 overall in 1996) for the second highest single-season total in Patriots history and the most in NFL history by a tight end. In addition, he was fourth in the league in yards after catch with 668.

It’€™s not just their pass-catching abilities that make them unique. In the case of Gronkowski, he has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, and over the last month, with the New England offensive line in a state of recent reconstruction, he has been utilized more as a blocker. Going forward, the Patriots will continue to face some elite pass rushers, and so it wouldn’€™t be a surprised to see Gronkowski used as a blocker more often. That would put more of a burden on Hernandez to step up his game, and down the stretch, he has certainly done that.

Best Moment: Both had several incredible moments over the course of the season, but our vote goes to Gronkowski’€™s performance in the Dec. 11 win over the Redskins in Washington, where he rumbled for an extraordinary 160 yards on six catches, including a Bavaro-esque 49-yard catch and run where he shook a handful of Redskins’€™ tacklers on the way to the Washington red zone.

Worst Moment: It’€™s almost nitpicking, but perhaps the worst of the season came late in the first half of the win over the Jets where Hernandez bobbled a Tom Brady pass on the goal line that would have given New England a touchdown. Instead, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie snatched it out of the air and took it back to midfield at the end of the half. As for Gronkowski, he was the second-most penalized player on the team this season with six flags against him.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: A Patriots’ tight end caught at least one pass for a gain of 20+ yards in 15 of the 16 games this season. No other team’€™s tight end managed such a catch in more than 12.

Money quote: ‘€œThe skill set of both those players really allows us to be flexible. Not only are they good blockers, but they can catch the ball, too. You can run it behind them, you can play-action pass and then they’€™ve become pretty efficient in the passing game also, just to spread them out and be able to run them on different run combinations. They’€™re very good players.’€ ‘€“ Brady on Gronkowski and Hernandez

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, antonio cromartie, Curtis Martin, Patriots Position Breakdowns 2012 Playoffs
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