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How return of Rob Gronkowski will affect Patriots offense

10.18.13 at 12:19 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski will sit out once again Sunday against Atlanta. (AP)

Rob Gronkowski’s return would be a big boost for a Patriots offense that has struggled through the first six games of the season. (AP)

FOXBORO — While the reports Friday that Rob Gronkowski has been medically cleared to play do not necessarily mean he’s going to be back to his 2011 self, his mere presence on the field would change the face of a Patriots offense that has struggled at times over the first six games of the regular season.

Here are five ways things will change for the Patriots with the return of Gronkowski to the lineup.

1. New England will again be able to rely on the tight ends to carry a sizable burden in the passing game.

Through the first six games of the 2013 season, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and Zach Sudfeld (before he was cut loose) primarily were utilized as blockers, and only intermittent parts of the passing game, rising up to chip in as needed. Mulligan caught a 1-yard touchdown pass against the Falcons, while Hoomanawanui had a career-high four catches (on four targets) for 57 yards in last Sunday’s win over the Saints. Through the first six games, the group had nine catches on 15 targets. By way of comparison, through six games last year the Patriots found the tight ends 45 times on 68 targets. Expect those targets to the tight ends to increase.

2. Accordingly, the offensive opportunities for the rest of the offensive skill-position players will decrease.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman has caught 41 passes through the first six games — that’s 30 percent of Tom Brady‘s total completions. (He’s already set a career mark for receptions in a season, and there’s still 10 games left on the schedule.) While it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a symbol that Brady’s confidence in him is waning — after all, there are only so many passes to go around — his numbers likely will take a hit. The same is true for rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. There also may be fewer chances in the running game. Again, the inclusion of a talent like Gronkowski means that there will be fewer chances for everyone else across the board.

3. While there might be fewer opportunities in the ground game, the running backs should get a clearer path with Gronkowski back in the lineup.

Provided there are no ill effects from the forearm issue, Gronkowski’s blocking style will be a welcome addition along the New England offensive line. Hoomanawanui and Mulligan have done yeoman’s work, but a healthy Gronkowski would change the face of the Patriots running game. According to Pro Football Focus, last year the Patriots ran the ball 68 times off tight end for 311 yards. Contrast that with this season — through six games, the Patriots have run the ball 19 times off tight end and have picked up 34 yards. In addition, while the rest of the pass-catchers might not be able to have the same number of opportunities, Gronkowski’s presence will open things up for them. The master of the seam route, he can draw double coverage down the field, allowing things to open up underneath in that small sliver of real estate between the defensive line and the linebackers for Edelman and Danny Amendola.

4. The offensive rhythm should get better.

For all of Gronkowski’s talents, one of his more underrated skills is his ability to pick up good yards after the catch. In a New England offense that set the standard when it came to YAC the last few seasons, Gronkowski was an important asset — he finished the 2011 season fourth in the league in YAC — 656 of his 1,327 receiving yards came after the catch that year. While he wasn’t able to pick the the same sort of YAC that former teammate Wes Welker did (Welker led the league in YAC in 2011 and 2012), he should provide a spark to a group of pass-catchers that rank 13th in the league through six games with 744 yards after the catch.

5. The red zone efficiency should improve.

While they made gains last week against the Saints with a pair of red zone touchdowns, the Patriots have consistently been one of the worst teams in the league through the first six games when it comes to finishing off drives in the red zone with touchdowns. New England has nine touchdowns in 22 red zone trips this season, good for 40.9 percent. That’s 30th in the league, ahead of only Pittsburgh at 38.5 percent and Jacksonville at 33.3. (Denver leads the league with an 82.1 conversion rate — 23 touchdowns on 28 trips inside the 20.) Gronkowski is one of the best red zone targets in the league — from 2010 through 2012, no one had more red zone touchdowns (29) than the big tight end.

It’s important to go into this weekend with a realistic set of expectations regarding Gronkowski. Despite the reports that he was dominant in practice while playing the role of Jimmy Graham on scout team duty last week, there’s a big difference between practicing and getting back on the field and playing a majority of snaps. Physically, it takes time to build up to that point, and while his teammates have had four preseason games and six regular-season contests, this will be his first game action since Jan. 13, a span of more than nine months, and just his third game since last Nov. 18 when he suffered his forearm injury against the Colts. As a result, even if he is 100 percent, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots rotate him back into the lineup in the same fashion they did when Amendola returned a couple of weeks ago against the Bengals — in that one, Amendola played 39 of a possible 63 snaps after coming back from an extended time on the shelf because of a groin injury.

While it might be too much to expect Gronkowski to instantly step into the lineup and return to his All-Pro status with a snap, the mere sight of him on the field is an indication that good things could be in store for the New England offense for the second half of the 2013 season.

Read More: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Michael Hoomanawanui, Rob Gronkowski
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