Life without Rob Gronkowski is going to be difficult, but if the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins is any indication, the absence of the All-Pro tight end will not completely derail the Patriots offense this season.
As expected, and as has been the case all season, other players stepped up and played bigger roles. It was enough at times (the Patriots converted nine of 17 third downs) but not at others (they picked up one touchdown on four trips inside the red zone).
In their first (erm, seventh) game without Gronkowski, the Patriots called for a heavy dose of wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The two diminutive receivers provided the majority of the Patriots' passing production, combining for 33 of Tom Brady's 55 targets and 23 of his 34 completions.
Surprisingly, Shane Vereen's role was mitigated, as the hybrid running back-wide receiver combined for five total touches and 21 yards. That's after he finished the last three games with at least 15 touches and 75 yards.
It's impossible to know why Vereen was such a limited factor in the game without film review—was it by scheme on the Dolphins' part, or was Brady simply looking for other matchups? Either way, there's room to get him more involved in the offense.
At the same time, it's important to remember that the Patriots were not at full strength for this game (even without Gronk). Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have played a big role for the Patriots in the past few weeks, but neither was available to the team Sunday. Either one would have been the Patriots' best downfield threat in this game.
The final tally says the Patriots passed the ball 55 times and ran it just 22, but 29 of those pass attempts took place in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were trying to mount a comeback. So it's not as though they had a pass-happy game plan going into a contest without their best offensive player, Brady aside, and two of their rising rookie receivers.
With such a depleted arsenal in the passing game, the Patriots should give serious consideration to finding balance on offense.
Still, the red-zone woes will be the focal point of the conversation around the Gronk-less Patriots this week, and until the Patriots prove they can still execute inside the opponent's 20-yard line. As mentioned earlier, they went 1-of-4 in the red zone, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui providing the lone red-zone touchdown.
He did, however, miss an opportunity to catch a pass in the red zone later in the game—a pass which could arguably have drawn a pass-interference flag, and a catch which Gronkowski most certainly could have made.
The Patriots will have to find ways to get receivers open in the red zone. Perhaps the screens that have been so effective between the 20's could be a scheme to get separation for the receivers and allow them to make the play with the ball in their hands.
Regardless, the red zone remains the biggest issue, and not surprisingly so—prior to Week 15, the Patriots were converting 40.9 percent of their red-zone tries without Gronkowski, as opposed to 68.8 percent with him in the lineup.
So now, at least, the Patriots have an idea of what needs to improve and will get help in some areas; everything else wasn't so bad. Whether that will be enough in January's big games, against the best the AFC has to offer, remains another question.
But in a big game in December, against one of the best defenses the AFC has to offer, the Patriots once again had a chance to win.
There are some silver linings to this loss, but the fact remains: While what we saw from the Patriots Sunday may inspire confidence, what we saw also won't be enough if it's the same as we're seeing come playoff time.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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