Patriots

Ten most important Pats heading into 2015: Rob Gronkowski

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Ten most important Pats heading into 2015: Rob Gronkowski

Leading up to the first day of training camp, we’re going to look at the most important Patriots, counting down from 10 to 1. I almost put this next guy at the top of the list. He’s that dominant. But I have a thing for quarterbacks in a quarterback-driven league so . . . 

NO. 2: ROB GRONKOWSKI

Why? There's no better player at his position than Ron Gronkowski. And aside from J.J. Watt in Houston, there's no other positional player who is so far ahead of the next guy you need binoculars to find him. You can’t cover him with a safety because there isn’t one big enough to handle Gronk’s size and brute strength. A cornerback? Are you kidding me? A coach should get fired for thinking such a thing. Put a linebacker on him and Gronk starts salivating like a dog with a plate of grilled steaks sitting on the countertop. They, too, surrender size in their matchup, and the Pats tight end is a much better route-runner than anyone bothers to give him credit for. In short, he’s pretty much the perfect weapon. 

Previous Performance: Coming off another injury-plagued season in 2013, Gronk wasn’t Gronk at the start of 2014: Just 13 catches for 127 yards in that 2-2 September. He was starting to get impatient. Hell, we all were. Then came the breakout performance at home versus Cincinnati: Six catches. One hundred yards. A TD. A near tearful admission that he was sick of people questioning his quarterback and that it was up to him to show everyone that Tom Brady was still Tom Brady. The beast was back, and those pedestrian early performances quickly were forgotten. Gronk finished with 82 catches, 1,124 yards and 12 TDs, then hit paydirt in all three playoff games, including his undressing of K.J. Wright in the Super Bowl. What was I was saying about being a matchup nightmare????

Questions surrounding the player: Health. That’s it. That’s all. When fully healthy during the 2011-12 regular season, he was downright Randy Mossian, with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns. But then it was an ankle, a forearm, a forearm again, a torn ACL. That robbed us of the Eigth Wonder of the World for multiple seasons. But last year signaled a return to form and now the dude had a full offseason to train and ride around on his party bus. Look out world. 

Overall Outlook: I think we’re going to see a repeat of that ’11-12 season. And it’s going to be glorious. 

Five quick thoughts: Patriots put it all together against Falcons

Five quick thoughts: Patriots put it all together against Falcons

FOXBORO -- Here are some quick-hitting thoughts on the Patriots' 23-7 victory over the Falcons on Sunday night.

1) If the Patriots attacked this game believing that the best defense is a good offense . . . they were right. 

They controlled the ball for more than 18 minutes in the first half and ran for 92 yards on 18 carries (a 5.1 yards per attempt average) with four backs sharing the load. Rex Burkhead gave the team a spark with his speed and vision in his first game back since suffering a rib injury in Week 2. The success the Patriots had running the ball had the added benefit of opening up the play-action pass game and it helped protect Tom Brady. After taking two sacks in the first quarter and a monster hit (penalized for roughing the passer) from Adrian Clayborn in the second, Brady was fairly well-protected. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 3

2) Tom Brady lamented the fact that he hadn't been more accurate in the red zone of late, but he was better in that area to help the Patriots pad their early lead. 

The Patriots went 2-for-3 in the red zone through the first half, with Brady hitting on touchdown passes to Brandin Cooks (which looked more like an end-around hand-off) and James White. Brady still had moments of inaccuracy. The pass he lofted before being croaked by Clayborn was a bad one that was intercepted. (The pick was wiped after the penalty was enforced.) He threw behind Chris Hogan on multiple occasions. He also had an odd throw float well out of bounds that was intended for Rob Gronkowski. But for the most part he was on point, completing 21 of his first 29 throws for 241 yards. 

3) The Patriots defense showed up in critical moments time and time again in this one. 

They stopped the Falcons twice on fourth down, and they allowed Matt Ryan and his offense to convert on just two of their first nine third-down plays. The Falcons coaching staff deserves plenty of criticism for going for it when they did, but with a banged-up secondary, going against the reigning MVP and one of the best receivers in the league, the Patriots responded.

4) Bill Belichick's run defense was particularly impressive in the first half on Sunday night, helping keep the Falcons from getting anything going until it was too late. 

They allowed just 30 yards on nine attempts in the first two quarters (a 3.3 yards per attempt average), with Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise all making impressive stops at, near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

5) The Patriots suffered a handful of injuries to key players that will be worth keeping an eye on moving forward. 

Malcom Brown left the game in the second half with an ankle injury. Their top defensive tackle this season, Brown's absence may be one reason for why the Falcons were able to pump up their rushing yardage to triple digits by midway through the fourth quarter. Dont'a Hightower also left the game and was announced as questionable to return with a shoulder injury. Hightower has had a history of shoulder issues and so perhaps this is an older injury that was re-aggravated. Chris Hogan also left the game briefly and was evaluated for a concussion, according to NBC's television broadcast. He later returned.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE