FOXBORO, Mass. – Tom Brady was wise to go to Rob Gronkowski early and often.
And that’s not just for the obvious reason: that Gronkowski finally appears to be fully healthy. In proving that the tight end was a force to be reckoned with, that opened up the rest of the field for the Patriots’ other receivers.
Gronk’s dominant start — he had seven receptions for 119 yards in the first half — allowed Danny Amendola to go off for four catches and 122 yards. It allowed Aaron Dobson to get five receptions for 130 yards. It even allowed Stevan Ridley to carry the ball 26 times for 115 yards.
“It’s amazing, for real,” Dobson said. “Defenses got to worry about him. He’s a problem. So, just taking him off the middle of the field, just opening it up on the outsides.”
There are plenty of reasons why the Patriots’ offense was finally able to turn the corner and flash a dominant performance. The Steelers’ poor play certainly played a role, but Gronkowski’s dominance was probably the biggest factor.
“When he’s healthy and on the field, he’s tough to stop,” Brady said about Gronkowski. “He’s a great run blocker and what he does for us in the passing game, it’s tough to match up. And if the attention goes to Gronk with extra coverage, it opens it up for all the other guys. He’s a big presence on our team and when he’s out there for every snap it’s going to be even better.”
Even after the Patriots looked good in Atlanta against the Falcons, there wasn’t a prove-it performance in the first eight weeks of the season. The Patriots finally proved it.
Brady’s 432 yards, 70-percent completion percentage and four touchdowns were an oasis among a brutal start to the season. Brady entered the game with a 55.7-percent completion percentage, 74.9 quarterback rating, 5.94 yards per attempt and nine touchdowns to six interception. Those numbers are middling for any quarterback and downright awful for a player of Brady’s caliber.
But as Brady and Belichick have said many times, it’s not about statistics. The Patriots are heading into the bye week and Carolina with a 7-2 record. And even if most of those wins can be chalked up to the defense, there’s finally hope for Brady and the offense.
“I think there were some elements of our game that we’re starting to show,” Brady said. “When Gronk plays like that and can produce like that and Danny does that and Aaron does that and the backs do that and the line blocks, it’s a good way to play football. There were a lot of guys that played really well and that’s what it’s going take, I think, as the season goes. We have to keep getting better. It’s been a process for us, but at the bye week, 7-2 is not bad. Hopefully our best football is ahead of us.”
While it seemed like nothing was clicking through eight weeks, all of a sudden everything clicked. And now New England is getting Shane Vereen back against the Panthers. So Brady already increased his completion percentage to 57.1 on the season. Once his dependable third-down option comes back, that number could shoot back up to his typical percentage in the 60s.
There were weeks when the Patriots had barely any weapons on offense. Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins had to step up while Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen were out. Now, the team is accumulating so many weapons that Thompkins, the star of the Saints game, was inactive on Sunday.
Gronkowski and Amendola can only get better as their health improves. And it seems like Dobson is getting exponentially better every week. It’s easy to overreact after a win like this, and the Steelers certainly aren’t the best team in the league — far from it, in fact. But they were allowing just 181 passing yards per game previous to this game. And New England downright torched them.
It was only a matter of time before the offense improved. It seems like Week 9 was the week it finally happened.