The New England Patriots have placed tight end Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve, thus ending his season due to a torn ACL and MCL. Gronkowski is one of the few irreplaceable players in the league, but the Patriots can overcome the loss by adapting their aerial attack. It'll just be yet another challenge for quarterback Tom Brady.
Remember, this guy won a Super Bowl with David Givens, Deion Branch and David Patten at receiver. His tight end?
But this Patriots team doesn't have the same caliber of defense. And the challenge of replacing Gronkowski isn't a small one. As this tweet from ESPN Stats & Info shows, Brady isn't the same without Gronkowski:
The Patriots can overcome the loss of their star tight end, but it will take more than one player stepping up. Gronkowski provides both a vertical and red-zone threat that no single player on the Patriots' roster can match.
Don't expect the production to come from the tight end position, either. The Patriots roster has Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and the recently signed D.J. Williams. They combine for 12 catches, 130 yards and one touchdown.
One of the three will likely accumulate some statistics by virtue of being on the field with Brady, but there would have to be drastic improvement for any of them to compensate for Gronkowski.
The Patriots can bolster their aerial attack by using even more short passes, such as pick and screen plays. This suits the skill set of their healthy receivers, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. Brady was able to find both of them on short passing plays for touchdowns after Gronkowski was injured, as shown in the video below:
Edelman has been a blessing for the Patriots' attack. He leads them in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. If he can continue to provide steady production, the Patriots' passing game won't flounder too much without Gronkowski.
Who will be most important in the Patriots' passing game without Gronkowski?
Remember, Amendola was out much of the time that Gronkowski was earlier in the season. Having him in the mix adds a reliable presence to the receiving corps.
Amendola isn't the only player in the lineup who was missing earlier in the season. Running back Shane Vereen will also play a large role in the offense. Vereen is primarily a receiving threat used on third downs. Sometimes he's even split out as a receiver.
Expect more from Vereen.
NESN's Luke Hughes agrees that the Patriots will rely on Vereen, writing:
After Gronkowski went down with a torn ACL in the third quarter on Sunday, Brady relied heavily on Vereen both as a runner out of the backfield and in the passing game. In fact, nine of Vereen's 12 catches on Sunday came after Gronkowski's injury in the second half.
Vereen's quickness out of the backfield and good hands make him difficult to cover. He poses a matchup problem for defenses—albeit a different problem than matching up with Gronkowski.
Where the Patriots will have difficulty compensating for Gronkowski is in the red zone.
One compensation for their red-zone offense could be to spread the receivers out and run short slants and pick plays close to the goal line as we saw in the video above against the Browns. Another option could be handing the ball to 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount.
The good news for the Patriots is that they have three regular-season games to figure out their red-zone offense before the postseason.
And they may need all three.