You don't need to know every last detail of Rob Gronkowski's career accomplishments to understand how he impacts the Patriots offense. Just listen to how the Cardinals described him this week.
"There’s a bunch of other tight ends, but there’s one Gronk," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "He is a different animal when it comes to defending him."
"A complete animal," Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson told ArizonaSports.com. "The guy is more than a LeBron James at the tight end position — the guy is huge. He’s very, very fast. He uses his body well, and he's the guy whenever they’re in trouble, who they want to get the ball to, especially in the red zone so we’re going to have to make sure that we’re on our Ps and Qs at all times to understand where he is, to understand his positions, because where he is in certain formations, how he’s lined up is going to tell you what’s going to come."
Gronkowski has been ruled out of Sunday's matchup with the Cardinals due to a hamstring injury he suffered in a joint training-camp practice with the Bears last month. Left tackle Nate Solder and guard Jonathan Cooper -- dealing with hamstring and foot injuries, respectively -- have also been ruled out for the season-opener, but it's Gronkowski's injury that will likely have the most dramatic effect on what the Patriots offense will be able to accomplish against a Cardinals defense that ranked in the top-10 in both passing defense and rushing defense in 2015.
Here's how the Patriots might try to cope . . .
The Garoppolo Effect: Gronkowski's value isn't based solely on his ridiculous catch radius or his ability to help clear running lanes as a blocker. As former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff Mike Lombardi told WEEI on Friday, Gronkowski's mere presence on the field would have helped quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to decipher coverages more easily against the Cardinals. He's such a mismatch that he requires defenses to show their hand before they'd like to. Without the "great indicator," as Lombardi called him, Garoppolo may have a tougher time trying to solve the intentions of the Cardinals defense before the snap. One way the Patriots could make that part of the game a little simpler on their first-time starting quarterback? Play with a hurry-up tempo. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has explained in the past that up-tempo offenses essentially force opposing defenses to become more vanilla. Defensive coordinators might have to limit their number of play calls on a snap-to-snap basis in those situations, and it's more difficult for defensive coaches to relay calls onto the field. It's also tougher to change personnel, and it's a challenge for the players on the field to communicate when offenses are buzzing up to the line of scrimmage without huddling. If Garoppolo is comfortable in that type of fast-paced scheme -- as he seemed to be in preseason game No. 2 against the Bears -- he may be rewarded with some easy-to-read defensive looks from the Cardinals.
"Next Man Up": As Arians alluded, there is no one at the tight position quite like Gronkowski. But having Martellus Bennett in the fold may make the blow of Gronkowski's absence a little less devastating. At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Bennett will have a clear size advantage over just about any defensive back or linebacker matched up with him in the passing game, and throughout his career he has been among the game's most effective run-blocking tight ends. During training camp last month, Belichick said of Bennett, "I’d say there’s really not a whole lot that it looks like he can’t do. It looks like he can do pretty much everything you want a tight end to do. He’s smart, very smart. He handles the formations and adjustments and things like that, which are a big part of our offense at that position. He handles those well, and it’s been pretty easy." In his first season with the Patriots, Bennett probably won't be expected to do all the things that Gronkowski can within the offense. There's simply too much volume, especially at that position. But his intelligence and versatility should help the Patriots offense maintain some semblence of continuity with Gronkowski out. If the game plan was to go with tight-end heavy sets all along, the Patriots could still achieve that goal by turning to second-year tight end AJ Derby or veteran Clay Harbor. Few expected the Patriots to keep four tight ends on their initial 53-man roster, but they may be rewarded for their depth at the position if all three healthy tight ends can play meaningful roles in Arizona.
Ground-Breaking Development: Will the Patriots press the issue and lean on their passing game with their No. 1 pass-catcher, No. 1 pass-protector and No. 1 quarterback unavailable? Striking a balance between the run and the pass is often New England's goal, but Sunday night's game could be one in which it makes sense to go run-heavy. If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels felt it would work, he still has the necessary personnel at his disposal to deploy the kinds of jumbo formations that the Patriots have run out of successfully in the past. While Gronkowski can be a force in the running game, having three healthy tight ends, three healthy offensive tackles and fullback James Develin could be enough to help 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount grind out positive yards on a consistent basis. If the Patriots opt to hand the football off early and often, keep an eye on how Cameron Fleming is used on Sunday night. He's shown that he has the athleticism to be effective as a blocking tight end, and he saw plenty of work in that role against the Bears in their exhibition game last month.