FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and his teammates have some ground rules leading up to Sunday night's home game against the Atlanta Falcons, a rematch of Super Bowl LI.
“We’ve been given really high strict rules that we are not allowed to talk about that game, so you’re not really going to get any information from anyone about that,” he said.
Those orders, handed down by coach Bill Belichick, apply even to those who didn’t play in the game, such as Gronkowski. Not that Gronkowski would want to look back at that time anyway. He was coming off back surgery, and it naturally pained him to be relegated to injured reserve and miss the Super Bowl this past February.
As for this season, he said simply, “It feels great to be back playing.”
Gronkowski is coming off a two-touchdown game in Sunday’s 24-17 victory over the New York Jets, which was his 15th career game with multiple receiving touchdowns, tying Randy Moss for the Patriots' franchise record. Gronkowski was ribbed by Belichick for having “twinkle toes” after high-stepping into the end zone on one of the TDs.
Gronkowski looked refreshed after missing the team’s Week 5 win over the Buccaneers because of a thigh injury. Belichick also noted how Gronkowski was at the point of attack as a blocker on Dion Lewis' 1-yard touchdown run.
While the Patriots’ offense has been struggling to consistently string together successful plays, and has failed to close out victories in the fourth quarter in two straight weeks, it’s hard to imagine that Gronkowski (26 catches for 401 yards, four touchdowns) could do much more to help the cause this season. If there is one play that highlights his value to the offense more than any other, his 25-yard, second-quarter catch on Sunday qualifies.
The Patriots trailed 14-0 at the time and were backed up on their own 10-yard line when the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski ran up the right seam and was covered tightly by Jets linebacker Darron Lee. The ball was delivered anyway, and Gronkowski's knack for reaching up and snaring an accurate delivery from quarterback Tom Brady was on full display, ultimately leading to the team’s first touchdown.
“He’s got a big catch radius, so usually you’ve just got to get it somewhere near him and he’s got the ability to up and catch it,” Brady said. “You can usually find a pretty good place to throw it when he’s running the field. So he’s a big target, runs well, and has great hands.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn has stressed to his defenders the importance of being able to “defend through the hands” against Gronkowski. But even then, that isn’t always good enough to slow down the Gronkowski-Brady connection.
“The other part, as strong as Rob is and the length, it’s really where they place the ball with Brady,” Quinn said. “Much like a good pitcher who knows location, I really admire that about Tom’s career, throwing away from the leverage of the defender. All good quarterbacks have that trait and he’s certainly one of the very best at it.
“If the linebacker’s in the right coverage or right position, they’re willing to put it in a spot that’s really hard to defend. So for us, when you’re playing man-to-man, or even if you’re zone which turns into a man, you better be ready to go play through the hands. The big catch radius he has makes it challenging. How do you match up and how do you play so you don’t get into those spots is a real big factor.”
It is a factor the Falcons didn’t have to contend with in Super Bowl LI, but it figures to be a focal point Sunday night.
“When he gets going it’s great for everybody, so it’s been great having him in there this year,” Brady said. “He’s worked really hard and I love playing with him. We’ve got a great rapport. He’s obviously a guy that’s super-consistent when he’s been out there for us, and he’s really playing that same role this year.”