The New England Patriots will be without injured star tight end Rob Gronkowski for their AFC Championship matchup with the Baltimore Ravens today, seemingly leaving a huge hole in the team's incredibly dominant offense. Yet as they've already proven this year, the Patriots boast a formidable arsenal of weapons — even without the NFL's best tight end.
Gronkowski averaged 71.8 yards per game this season, most among tight ends. He caught 11 touchdown passes, also tops among tight ends, despite missing a third of the season with a broken arm. Those contributions helped propel the Patriots to their fourth straight AFC East title, and earned Gronkowski a second consecutive Pro Bowl nod.
Following Gronkowski's season-ending injury — he broke his arm (again) in the Patriots playoff win against the Houston Texans last weekend — there's been much hand-wringing in Boston that the Pats' vaunted offense will falter against the Ravens, as it did in last year's Super Bowl when an ailing ankle limited Gronkowski's effectiveness against the New York Giants. However, a look at the Patriots' performance this year sans Gronkowski should allay those fears.
For the season, the Patriots averaged a league-best 34.8 points per game; during the stretch without Gronkowski, they averaged 34.2. The key to that sustained success was, quite simply, redistribution.
Gronkowski is undeniably talented, but he benefits from having one of the game's premier quarterbacks, Tom Brady, rifling passes his way. Remove Gronkowski, and you still have Brady whipping the ball with expert precision to the team's other threats.
Playing Gronk-less against the San Francisco 49ers in December, Brady hit seven different receivers for 425 yards, the most yards he put up in a single game all year. In particular, tight end Aaron Hernandez, the team's number two TE and Gronkowski's de facto replacement, picked up much of the slack, amassing 92 receiving yards and scoring a touchdown. One week prior, also without Gronk, Hernandez caught two touchdown passes in a rout of the playoff-bound Texans, while the team racked up 42 points and almost 300 yards in the air.
Strikingly, the Patriots passing game did not suffer a statistical setback without Gronkowski. With him, they averaged 287.2 passing yards per game this year; without him, that number actually improved to 299.2 yards per game. While that's admittedly a small sample size, so too is the entire 16-game season. At the least, the Patriots proved their aerial attack is far from one dimensional.
Part of the Patriots' consistent offensive prowess can be attributed to their curmudgeonly genius of a head coach, Bill Belichick. With him at the helm, the Patriots offense has routinely torn up the league. In 2007, they shattered the all-time record for most points in a season with 589. Over the past six years, they've produced four of the 12 most prolific scoring seasons in NFL history.
On top of all that, New England will be facing a fairly pedestrian Ravens secondary. Baltimore's pass defense was almost exactly on point with the league average during the regular season, allowing 228.1 yards per game in the air, versus 231.3 for the league as a whole. Even more troubling for Baltimore, they allowed the fourth-most yards per play against multiple tight end sets — a formation the Patriots excel at running, even without Gronkowski.
When the Patriots suit up today, they'll still have their top two receivers in terms of yardage: Wes Welker (1,354) and Brandon Lloyd (911). They'll also have prime targets like running backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, both of whom can wreak havoc with their ability to catch passes out of the backfield. As one NFL scout told Boston's WWEI, the Patriots, "have several personnel matchup advantages" against Baltimore, particularly with all their receiving options who "spread out the defense individually and as a group, and will also make things tougher for a Ravens secondary that has matchup problems."
The Patriots are undoubtedly better with their go-to tight end on the field. But even with Gronkowski out, they've proven that their roster is deep enough to absorb that loss and keep their offense running full steam.