FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a few hiccups covering tight ends last week in Miami. Just imagine what type of issues one of the league’s elite tight ends could cause against a defense trying to find its rhythm.
Fortunately for the Falcons, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, still recovering from offseason forearm and back surgeries, won’t be at full strength if he plays Sunday night. However, Gronkowski’s presence on the field as a 6-foot-6, 265-pound target is enough to drive defenders insane. His 38 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons were the third-most for any player in that time span, right behind Randy Moss (43) and Jerry Rice (40).
"Just another threat," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said of Gronkowski. "Coming back off an injury like that, we expect him to be targeted a lot because he’s a huge part of their offense, and he’s been missing. So if he comes back, we expect him to be a huge part of their game plan. And we’ll adjust accordingly."
Gronkowski hasn’t caught a pass since the 2012 regular-season finale against the Dolphins. His timing with quarterback Tom Brady might be a little off, although Gronkowski practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday.
It will be interesting to see just exactly how the Patriots use Gronkowski, if he plays. They might spread him out wide to keep him out of traffic and, thus, keep his body from taking a pounding.
Falcons linebacker Joplo Bartu talked about the possibility of matching up with Gronkowski.
"Same challenge that it has been other nights: rerouting, throwing the timing off, making it even harder for him because I know Tom Brady probably hasn’t been throwing to him this season," Bartu said.
Brady has made the best of being shorthanded at receiver. Top target Danny Amendola missed the last two games with a groin injury and might not be available Sunday night. Last week, Brady settled for contributions from rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson along with leading receiver Julian Edelman.
Regardless of which players he has to target, expect Brady to try to slice and dice the Falcons in the middle of the field, utilizing option routes with his inside receivers.
"It’s a lot of shimmying and shaking with their routes, with jerk routes and plants and pivots," DeCoud said. "And then, with an accurate quarterback, you have to be tight in coverage and be ready to make a play on the ball because if you are tight, the ball may still be coming to you."