FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick went back to the drawing board in putting together a plan to topple the NFL’s last undefeated team on Sunday night.
Or maybe to the archives.
The New England Patriots punished the Cincinnati Bengals for 220 rushing yards in the 43-17 pounding at Gillette Stadium, and Tom Brady got his groove back, too.
But the real stars of the night were Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright…for what they represent.
The two tight ends combined for 11 catches, 185 yards and two touchdowns.
BOX SCORE: Patriots 43, Bengals 17
That’s 11 of Brady’s 23 completions – with much of the yardage coming after the catch.
Suddenly, the Patriots offense has an impact two-tight end formation again.
As Brady put it, “Those guys played their butts off.”
This came in the nick of time, too, considering all of the woes for a unit that needed a breakout game in the worst way. The tight ends provided big plays and big balance for a unit that racked up a season-high 505 yards – or 215 more yards than it mustered in a deflating loss at Kansas City last Monday night.
Gronkowski, trying to re-establish his all-pro game after injury setbacks wreaked havoc on his 2013 campaign, had his best game of the season with six catches for 100 yards, with a score.
You’d expect that when he’s healthy, this is what he’s capable of.
He is, after all, the Gronk.
“Certainly Gronk made some great catches and runs,” said Brady, who also hit a personal marker in topping 50,000 career passing yards. “I wish I’d have gotten the ball to him a few more times in positions where he could have done something with it.”
This monster performance came after Gronkowski was a full participant in practices all week for the first time all season.
“I’m good to go,” Gronkowski assured afterward. “I can do whatever the coaches ask.”
Apparently, ditto for Wright, the second-year pro from Rutgers who was a surprising X-factor.
Wright entered the game with one catch in the previous three games, and four on the season.
He hauled in five catches for 85 yards and a score.
“It was good to see him have a breakout game,” Gronkowski said.
With the receiving corps depleted and unreliable, the Patriots have seemingly found a viable ticket that can be a huge influence in their quest to regain control of the AFC East.
Of course, Belichick downplayed the strategy.
“Depending on what the coverage is, the quarterback’s option is to get the ball to the guys that are open,” he said. “Tom does a good job of that.”
Brady, who entered the game on pace for the lowest completion percentage of his career, actually hasn’t been as prolific this season – perhaps in large part due to issues with the supporting cast.
Not only has a shuffled offensive line failed to provide consistent protection, which causes hurried throws and physical pain, the lack of dependable targets has short-changed the quarterback, too.
Yet against a Bengals defense that entered Week 5 allowing an NFL-low 11 points per game, Brady targeted the tight ends on nearly half of his 35 throws. Gronkowski was targeted 11 times, while Wright caught all five passes that came in his direction.
This is all too reminiscent of the Patriots’ offense in 2011, before Gronkowski began suffering a string of injury setbacks and before Aaron Hernandez became a murder suspect. Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards with 17 TDs in 2011, while Hernandez contributed 79 catches for 910 yards and 7 TDs and the Patriots’ two-tight end scheme became one of the league’s most potent matchup problems.
It’s too early to tell whether this will suddenly become the mark of New England’s current offense, although it is rather striking that Wright – obtained before the season in the trade that sent all-pro guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay – is wearing No. 81, which was Hernandez’s uniform number.
The other similarity, naturally, is found with the mismatches. Gronkowski is 6-6, 265; Wright is 6-4, 235. The Bengals had no choice but to try covering them with smaller defensive backs, but with the tight ends complementing their size with agility and good hands, the physical advantage provides an edge.
“Sometimes, defenses can’t find the right matchups for you,” said Wright. “That’s when you’ve got exposure, and that’s when you have to take advantage of what you’ve got.”
With Gronkowski on the other side, the Patriots might have a two-headed monster.
Wright played only five offensive snaps the last time the Patriots played at home, in Week 3 against the Raiders. The week before that at Minnesota, he was on the field for just eight snaps.
But the role is sure to get bigger now, if he can make the most of the plays like he did on Sunday night.
“It’s what I came here to do,” he said. “I definitely think it’s starting to come along for me.”
It’s also ironic that for all the criticism heaped on Belichick for dealing Mankins, only to leave Brady’s protection vulnerable up the middle, there’s a yin and yang answer with the prospect of a dynamic package that has been missing from the Patriots’ scheme.
Maybe Belichick knows better.