Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 312d

How Rob Gronkowski's absence affects Patriots' offensive approach

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The New England Patriots are without tight end Rob Gronkowski for Monday night’s road game against the Miami Dolphins (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) as he serves a one-game NFL suspension.

How will the Patriots replace him?

Let’s break down all the variables through the personnel groupings that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will consider, and how Gronkowski's absence affects them:

  • Two-TE set: This would usually be Gronkowski and tight end Dwayne Allen, the latter of whom has excelled more as a blocker this season. So now it would be Allen and undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister, whose background is more as a pass-catcher than an inline blocker. Hollister has played 6.9 percent of the offensive snaps this season. It's hard to imagine this grouping will be as big a part of the game plan without Gronkowski.

  • Two-back sets: With Gronkowski out, it could lead the team to use fullback James Develin more in two-back sets instead of the two-TE set. Develin has played 30.8 percent of the offensive snaps this season, so he still is on the field a lot. A two-back set, with Allen as the lone tight end (which is usually Gronkowski), would still be a strong option in the running game.

  • Three-receiver set: Gronkowski would usually be the lone tight end in the three-receiver set, and his effectiveness as both as a pass-catcher and blocker creates flexibility out of the grouping. Allen is the projected replacement, as he was in Week 5 against Tampa when Gronkowski didn't play (thigh). Allen just isn't the same pass-catching threat as Gronkowski (few are, of course).

  • Two-minute offense: This is usually run with one tight end (Gronkowski) on the field, and one thing McDaniels might consider is replacing that position with a second running back (called the “pony” grouping with James White and Rex Burkhead), or a fourth wide receiver (which hadn’t been an option in recent weeks with Chris Hogan sidelined with a shoulder injury but ready to return tonight). This would come down to how much value McDaniels felt Allen (five catches, 40 yards this season) could offer as a pass-catcher.

  • Three-TE set: With Gronkowski out, the Patriots would have Allen and Hollister on the field, and likely use an extra offensive lineman (e.g. Cam Fleming if he isn’t starting at right tackle in place of LaAdrian Waddle) as the third tight end.

As the groupings reflect, there isn’t one player who will, or can, replace Gronkowski. It will take a group effort.

That leads off this week’s “final walkthrough” for Monday’s game.

Two more to declare inactive: The Patriots have already ruled out starting right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle), starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy (calf), starting defensive end Trey Flowers (ribs), core special-teamer Brandon King (hamstring) and running back Mike Gillislee (illness). They must declare two more players inactive by 90 minutes before kickoff.

Stat of the week, Part I: If the Patriots win, they will clinch their 20th AFC East championship in franchise history, including their ninth straight.

Stat of the week, Part II: Tom Brady enters the game with 3,632 passing yards, and is on the cusp of eclipsing Warren Moon (3,678 in 1997) for the most passing yards in a season by a quarterback at age 40.

Quote of the week: “It's a competitive game. There's a lot of emotion out there. As the coach, I've got to do a better job of that.” -- Bill Belichick, sending a message to players, about the importance of keeping their cool.

Morelli gets the call: Veteran referee Pete Morelli has been assigned the game.

McDonough, Gruden and Salters: The game will be broadcast on ESPN, with Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Jon Gruden (analysis) and Lisa Salters (sideline) on the call. In Boston, it will also be aired on WCVB-TV (Channel 5).

Prediction: This marks just the second time in the Bill Belichick era (2000-present) that the Patriots will play a team in the regular season twice in a span of three weeks, which is an added wrinkle to consider. The last time it happened, in 2000, the Patriots split with the Colts. If the Patriots don't protect Brady better than they did two weeks ago against Miami, when they surrendered eight QB hits, they could fall victim to the upset. The Patriots’ defense is also ravaged by injury. But in the end, the Dolphins' struggle to score points -- they rank 26th in the NFL at an average of 17.4 per game -- will make it hard to keep pace with New England (averaging 29 points per game). Patriots 27, Dolphins 17.

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