Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will always be mentioned within a few breaths of each other when talking about the two tight ends. As two of the biggest (literally) weapons the New England Patriots have at their disposal, the two men have had an immeasurable impact on both the team's success and their own individual success.
That was never more evident than on Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. In the first game following Hernandez's ankle injury, Gronkowski was a virtual no-show in the Patriots' passing attack, as he caught just two passes for 21 yards.
While much of this had to do with the Ravens' aggressive, blitzing defense, it had more to do with the absence of Hernandez and how much the Patriots were forced to change their philosophy. This was aggravated even further when Julian Edelman left with a hand injury in the third quarter.
When Gronkowski and Hernandez were healthy and active against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, the Patriots ran two-wide receiver, two-tight end sets on 46 of 67 offensive snaps, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. With Hernandez hurt—and Edelman only available for the half—that number was reduced to 17 of 82 snaps, with the majority of sets featuring three wide receivers and just the lone tight end.
The absence of Hernandez meant that Gronkowski was forced on the field and many of Brady's line-of-scrimmage changes involved keeping his tight end in to protect against the blitz. Less opportunities to get out in passing routes means less opportunities to make plays.
When both players are on the field, defenses are forced to respect the threat of both players as well as wide receivers Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Edelman. Take out two of those threats and factor in Welker's short-yardage play style, and defenses are free to pin their ears back and come at Brady full force.
With Kellen Winslow hopefully getting himself acclimated to the offense, perhaps we will see more of that "22" (two wide, two tight end) personnel grouping that has been so effective for the Patriots. If not, we should get used to seeing No. 87 play more like Matt Light than Tony Gonzalez.