Patriots Must Hope Aaron Hernandez Is Healthy, Other Receivers Step Up in Wake of Rob Gronkowski’s Injury

Oh, Gronk. Oh, Gronk, Where art though, Gronk?

Much has been made about Rob Gronkowski‘s surgically repaired left forearm this week and considering the pace the offense was rolling in recent weeks, the frustration is justified.

Gronkowski is expected to be out for four to eight weeks, and with Aaron Hernandez still ailing from a lingering ankle injury, the questions are just piling up about the Patriots offense.

The good in all this may be that while all the focus surrounds Gronk’s forearm this week, questions about the porous secondary have seemed to subside.

Oh wait, you’re telling me people are still worried? A pair of interception returns for touchdowns wasn’t enough to ease the concerns?

Well, in that case, I’ll just have to dig deep, adjust the game plan and find a way to answer the variety of questions you guys have sent into this week’s special Thanksgiving mailbag. Or should I call it the Gronkbag?

Either way, there’ll be plenty of tryptophan and cranberry sauce to go around. So, here goes nothing.

Why did Bill Belichick feel the need to keep his best players in that game with the score that high & risk injuries?
— Robin112277, via Twitter

There’s really no explanation for why the likes of Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley and Wes Welker were still on the field during that last touchdown drive, with a 28-point lead in hand. But I don’t fault Belichick for keeping Gronk on the field during that extra point.

Plenty of star players play on certain special teams units, and Gronk’s role on the extra point team is to block speed guys along the outside and as insurance to run a route in case of a botched play. Those personnel groupings usually don’t change and there are not many guys, at least healthy guys for the Patriots, who could fill that right wing spot.

Sure, the injury is unfortunate, but it’s also a freak circumstance. You don’t want arguably your best offensive weapon susceptible to injury unnecessarily, but Gronk could’ve just as easily been injured on an extra point on the first drive of the game or even of one of his patterns across the middle.

Bright side is he should be back in time for the playoffs, and Hernandez is expected back soon enough. Speaking of which …

If we don’t have Gronk next week, will we have Hernandez? And if we don’t, who will play tight end against the Jets?
– @Mceacharnt, via Twitter

Well, here’s the good part of having a boatload of tight ends. There were plenty of complaints about the tight end splurge earlier in the season, but now it looks to provide some much-needed depth. Maybe this was the method behind Bill Belichick’s madness all along.

As to this Thursday’s game, you’d have to hope Hernandez is healthy enough to play finally. Given his participation at most practices over the past few weeks, Hernandez is at least close to a return. But even with him on the field, look for Visanthe Shiancoe to play a bigger role. He got a lot more involved against the Colts, playing almost half of the offensive snaps. Daniel Fells should also be back on the active gameday roster this week, and could find a more active role in the passing game.

Otherwise, guys like Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman will have to have bigger impacts and make the plays they’re more than capable of against what’s become a stingy Jets defense.

Even with the loss of Gronk the offense is clicking wonderfully, but what needs to change about the defense to get to the same caliber as the offense?
– James West, Duxbury

Ahh, a little switch over to the other side of the ball for this one. First off, last week’s performance was a big step forward for the secondary as well as the pass rush. Aqib Talib was glorified as the savior of the secondary for two weeks coming in, and while he wasn’t exactly the messiah, he did add some spice back there.

The defense as a whole is a very talented unit, but given the type of personnel on the roster (i.e. more focused on defending the run), the correlation you make to the offense will probably never be fully realized.

The secondary is quite obviously the major issue, although the coverage skills of the linebackers have also presented problems. But with Talib making plays, Devin McCourty containing things over the top, and even guys like Alfonzo Dennard and Marquice Cole stepping up, this secondary may just turn it around yet.

Instead of playing a bend but don’t break defense, I want to see the defensive plan be more aggressive. Get after the other team with the front seven. Make the opponent make a mistake, Dictate to the opponent! What are the chances this happens this season?
– Steve Press, Broomall, PA

Full disclosure, this question was sent in late last week. So thanks for the good forecasting, Steve. You’re better than most weathermen.

Still, I did feel it was necessary to address this issue, especially after seeing the aggressive style the Patriots played against the Colts.

Talib’s playmaking ability obviously had an impact, as he and Dennard both took interceptions back to the house. But the biggest key to the defensive success against Indy was the amount of blitzes Belichick threw out there. The Patriots blitzed 17 times on Sunday, six more than in any other game this season, and the ability to pressure the quarterback clearly had an impact.

The more pressure the Patriots apply as the season wears on will not only alleviate some pressure off the secondary, but should also create more turnovers. The big question will be how much time Chandler Jones will have to miss with his ankle injury. The real test will then be to see if they can continue applying the pressure with their best pass rusher sidelined.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Or want to be featured in the mailbag? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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