Gronk will have to put the team (and opposing defenders) on his back if the Pats want to win without Hernandez.
The New England Patriots are scuffling—at least by their lofty standards. Their offense put up 30 points against the vaunted Baltimore Ravens D, but without Aaron Hernandez, they couldn't make enough plays to hold a nine-point fourth-quarter lead.
Gronk will need to be at his best for the Pats to surge back into the division lead while Hernandez is out with a low ankle sprain.
That brings us to two fundamental questions: First, what do the Pats need from Gronk to remain an elite offense with only one stud TE?
Secondly, can they reasonably expect him to carry that burden while Hernandez is out?
Let's answer both questions in order.
What do the Patriots need from Gronk?
To put it simply: They need a lot.
Gronkowski was nearly a non-factor as a receiver in Week 3, hauling in just two catches for 21 yards. He spent a significant chunk of the game in pass protection due to a shaky performance from the offensive line. According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, Gronk stayed in to block on 16 of QB Tom Brady's 49 dropbacks.
Even still, the Pats need more from Gronk as a receiver.
That's not necessarily all on him. On his weekly WEEI radio appearance, Brady admitted that he needs to get the ball to Gronk more consistently (via the Boston Herald):
I've got to do a better job finding him. He's obviously a big target for us and someone that is a huge part of every game. I wish I had got him the ball more the other night, there's no question about it.
But Gronk also needs to do a better job of gaining separation in coverage. He didn't do a great job of avoiding the Ravens' attempts to throw off his timing on routes, as Ravens OLB Albert McClellan said, per the Baltimore Sun:
We just played the same type of ball that he played. He’s an aggressive guy, and we played aggressive with him. Some plays, he tried to run through the linebacker corps, and there were some plays where we just hit him off the line and slowed his timing.
Gronkowski is going to need to use the same strength, balance and leverage he employs as a blocker to dust defenders who try to throw off his timing. Otherwise, he won't reach the stem of his routes and gain separation on his defender in time for Brady to find him in the open field.
That will force Brady to become overly reliant on receivers working the sidelines.
So Gronk needs to figure out how to beat press coverage and bumps near the line of scrimmage. He's also got to continue to be the mauling blocker that he's been since he came into the league in both pass and run protection.
So that brings us to the second question.
Can They Expect Gronk to Carry That Burden?
It's a lot for any team to expect from one player: Be our best blocker and receiver. Essentially, the Pats need Gronk to be the most versatile and multi-talented player on the field.
Thankfully for the Pats, that's something they can expect from Gronkowski.
The man who set the record for receiving yards and TDs by a tight end last season is perfectly capable of performing as an elite offensive option again in 2012.
He'll need to use every ounce of his football IQ (which is plentiful, even if he's not quite MENSA material off the gridiron) to figure out ways to beat double-teams and manipulate holes in defenses that stack the middle.
He can't simply bowl over defenders; he'll need to work on getting off jams quicker.
If he can do that, he'll be a much bigger part of the offense before Hernandez returns.
The Pats need a booster shot of Gronk if they hope to succeed without Hernandez in the coming weeks.