Rob Gronkowski made Week 6 quite a bit more interesting Friday, when he was conspicuously absent from New England Patriots practice.
Gronkowski, who has dealt with a hamstring injury since training camp, causes a stir any time he’s not on the field. The big tight end is dealing with an illness, according to the Patriots, though no other information has been reported or revealed.
The Patriots have just one fully healthy tight end on their roster, AJ Derby, since Martellus Bennet is questionable with an ankle injury and Greg Scruggs already has been ruled out with a knee injury.
We’ll likely see Gronkowski take the field Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, though we won’t know for sure until Sunday at 11:30 a.m., when Patriots inactives are revealed.
Here what the Patriots must do to stop the Bengals.
SHUT DOWN A.J. GREEN
The No. 1 goal of the Patriots’ defense each week is to take out the opposing offense’s best player — well, after winning, that is. In this case, that’s X receiver A.J. Green, who has 36 receptions for 518 yards with two touchdowns.
Expect the Patriots to double cover Green using Logan Ryan with safety help over the top from Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon. The Patriots also could elect to stick Malcolm Butler with safety help over the top on Green, leaving Brandon LaFell to Ryan.
Ryan is more experienced at working with his fellow Rutgers alums, McCourty and Harmon, in double coverage, so I’d expect Butler to take on LaFell.
FULLY EMPLOY TWO-TIGHT END OFFENSE
The Patriots began to preview their two-tight end offense against the Cleveland Browns, but they held back from showing its full potential. This might be the week to get out to an early lead by using Gronkowski, if healthy, and Bennett against the Bengals’ slow linebacker corps, featuring Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby. The Bengals also sometimes will use cornerback Adam Jones on tight ends. Gronkowski and Bennett both are over 6-foot-6, however, so that would be a significant mismatch against the 5-foot-10 cornerback.
MAKE STOPS IN THE RED ZONE
The Patriots’s defense has struggled mightily in the red zone this season, allowing touchdowns 80 percent of the time they let the opposing defense inside the 20-yard line. The Bengals are nearly as bad at punching the ball in from the red zone, with a 40-percent touchdown success rate.
Something has to give, and we’ll likely see the Patriots’ defense prevail, especially since Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert won’t play again this week.
It would help if the Patriots’ pass rush improved this week. They have just nine sacks on the season, while the Bengals have allowed 17. Once again, something has to give in that area.
REJUVENATE RUSHING ATTACK
The Patriots were one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL before they hit a wall in Week 4. Patriots running backs averaged just 3.9 yards per carry against the Buffalo Bills and 2.8 yards per carry against the Cleveland Browns.
The Bengals are allowing 4.4 yards per carry and 114 rushing yards per game this season. Ideally, the Patriots can get out to an early lead using the passing game and drain the clock in the second half with LeGarrette Blount, James White and D.J. Foster on the ground.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images