Can Patriots deal with 'Gronk Effect'?

INDIANAPOLIS -- In many cases in which an injured player isn't healthy enough to fully perform his normal football duties, there is a trickle-down effect.

This is something different. Call it the "Gronk Effect," and it's far-reaching.

Everyone knows Rob Gronkowski is a vital part of the New England Patriots -- 90 receptions, 1,327 receiving yards, an NFL-leading 290 yards after contact and a tight end-record 17 touchdown catches during the 2011 regular season. But his impact goes beyond those statistics because of his ironman status and the lack of a replacement behind him.

Gronkowski played a whopping 96 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps this season. In seven games, he went wire to wire. In three games, he played every snap but one.

This is part of what makes him such a valuable and lethal weapon. He fits in every offensive package, from the spread-it-out, empty-backfield, let-it-rip stuff to the more compact power packages in which 1 yard is all that is needed.

Gronk. Does. All.

That alone should be enough to concern Patriots followers regarding how much Gronkowski, battling a high sprain of his left ankle since Jan. 22, can handle in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Then there's this: For an offense that ran more than 80 percent of its snaps this season with two or more tight ends on the field, if not Gronkowski, then who?

Gronkowski is joined by only second-year stud Aaron Hernandez (79 receptions) as players on the New England roster who have the "TE" designation next to their names. To compensate at times, the Patriots have utilized offensive tackle Nate Solder as a tight end/eligible receiver (144 snaps this season), which adds power but can make them more predictable and less dynamic.

So if Gronkowski can't go the ironman route Sunday night, a big question is how the Patriots will recalibrate their attack.

Based on what unfolded at different points of the season and more recently in the playoffs, it is likely that more would fall on a third receiver. That could thrust Julian Edelman (four receptions), Chad Ochocinco (15 receptions) and/or Tiquan Underwood (three receptions) under a brighter-than-expected spotlight.

When Gronkowski missed nine plays in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots turned mostly to Edelman. That changed the look of the team's primary package, with the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski replaced by the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Edelman.

The Patriots lost some flexibility with the change. They also weren't as strong at the line of scrimmage -- which is usually what happens when a receiver replaces a tight end -- as the powerful Gronkowski often does solid work in a blocking role.

Going back further, when the Patriots were without Hernandez in the third and fourth weeks of the season because of a sprained MCL, they also turned primarily to a third receiver to fill the void.

These types of switches could be in play in the Super Bowl, and it's why Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Tuesday, "You do have to prepare yourself if personnel combinations change."

The Giants plan to match up their three-safety package against the Patriots' multiple-tight end looks.

As for the Patriots' approach, coordinator Bill O'Brien exuded confidence that the offense will be able to adjust accordingly, depending on how limited Gronkowski might be.

"We're moving forward with the thought that we'll be ready for anything," said O'Brien, who will coach his final game in New England before assuming full-time duties as Penn State's head coach.
"We have a lot of good, instinctive players that will be ready for any role we ask them to do, right up to game time, during the game. They're adjustable guys, flexible guys, so we feel really good about where we're at right now."

O'Brien added that the Patriots like their game plan and all that's left at this point is "a few things to clean up." Monday was considered a "good practice" by O'Brien and the coaching staff, even though Gronkowski didn't participate.

Gronkowski, of course, potentially makes the Patriots great.

That's why there's a distinction to be made between a trickle-down effect and what the Patriots might be facing -- the "Gronk Effect."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.