Gronkowski bounces back vs. Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Last Sunday in Cleveland, New England Patriots rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski became the scapegoat in a 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

After being part of a muffed opening kickoff and later fumbling mere feet from the goal line, Gronkowski took the game as a learning experience, not being too hard on himself and focusing on important games that lay ahead. Fellow tight end Alge Crumpler defended Gronkowski, reminding reporters that the rookie had a "lot of football left in his career."

Gronkowski's performance on Sunday night in Pittsburgh made it clear that any reports of his demise were premature.

The second-round draft pick responded to his worst game as a professional with his best game to date, catching five passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns.

"It's just opportunities. You have to step up," Gronkowski said after the game. "Obviously last week didn't go the way we all wanted it to go, so we practice hard every week. We have to go hard every week no matter what."

Seemingly intent on turning the page, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady targeted Gronkowski on the team's first offensive play, a 7-yard completion.

Brady returned to Gronkowski two plays later, and the Patriots took an early 7-0 lead when he hit Gronkowski on a 19-yard scoring strike to cap off the opening drive.

"[Gronkowski] played a great game. I know it was a tough one for him last week [against the Browns], and he came back and really showed what he's all about," Brady told NBC's Andrea Kremer in an on-the-field interview after the game. "A great performance by him, by all the tight ends, by all the receivers, by the whole offense, by the whole defense. It was definitely a team win."

Among the steadying influences for Gronkowski is Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"Rob works hard. He does a good job; he's improved a lot over the course of the year," Belichick said after the game. "He was wide-open on one [of his touchdown catches], but he made a nice catch there on the last one. He's done a good job for us."

Gronkowski's three touchdowns gave him six for the season, breaking the previous franchise rookie tight end record set by Russ Francis in 1975 and Don Hasselbeck in 1977. (Both had three.) Gronkowski also became the sixth rookie tight end since 1960 to have three touchdown catches in one game.

Fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has 34 receptions on the season and had a pair of touchdown receptions last week, did not have a catch on Sunday against the Steelers and was targeted only twice.