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Foes walking tightrope

Patriots rookies quite a handful

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 22, 2010

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When opposing defenses try to figure out how to stop — more like moderately disrupt — the Patriots offense, the first job is to find a way to deal with the quickness just off the line of scrimmage of their diminutive weapons: receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker and running back Danny Woodhead.

It’s hard to do since most teams don’t have the requisite personnel: cornerbacks with the ability to play press coverage but also the maneuverability to deal with the inevitable change of direction of Branch and Welker, and linebackers with the agility and quickness to stay in front of Woodhead.

The Packers were one of the rare teams that could match up, with cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson and linebackers Desmond Bishop and Clay Matthews. Branch, Welker, and Woodhead combined for six receptions for 87 yards. One has to go back to the Browns game Nov. 7 to find a defense that held the trio to fewer than 100 combined yards.

But now a different problem is emerging for Patriots foes. Actually, two of them: tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both had their moments in the first half of the season, especially Hernandez, but they’ve developed into big problems for opposing defenses and it’s keeping the Patriots rolling, such as in Sunday night’s 31-27 victory over Green Bay, when the production of Tom Brady’s favorite options was being limited.

“What’s very, very fascinating about those two tight ends is that Hernandez, you expect him to be a mismatch, that was his strength in college,’’ Packers assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss said yesterday. “Gronkowski, you almost don’t see it coming but it’s real.’’

In the past six games (all victories for the Patriots), Gronkowski and Hernandez have a combined 29 catches for 369 yards and eight touchdowns.

And they’re both being used in very different ways.

Hernandez, at 6 feet 2 inches, 245 pounds and possessing 4.60 speed, is basically a glorified receiver. In his 17 targeted plays, including penalties, in the past six games, Hernandez has lined up in the traditional tight end position just once outside of goal line formations.

“He is a very athletic tight end, has a lot more versatility,’’ Moss said. “I think he fits that offensive scheme very well because it’s a scheme predicated on creating mismatches. So he is not that much of a surprise because everybody in the league has or has tried to get the Hernandez type so that you have a very dynamic tight end that can stretch the field vertically, a guy who can create underneath matchups, that can win the one-on-ones when you need him to. He has a very bright future.’’

Gronkowski (6-6, 265, 4.67) is more versatile than Hernandez in one respect: he can block. That would explain why he has averaged about 10 more snaps per game than Hernandez.

In Gronkowski’s 25 targeted throws the past six games, he has lined up as an inline tight end 12 times (48 percent). That’s also hiding him on film a bit from opposing defenses.

“Gronkowski is interesting in that he’s very deceptive because you don’t see him being that pure athletic, scouting combine talent,’’ Moss said. “But what he does have is great linear proportions. He’s very tall and very slim and he does a better job when I saw him in person as opposed to when I watched him on film. I actually thought he was awkward on film. But on the field he does a very good job of creating separation, of playing very smart and using his skill set to beat either the matchup or the zone.

“I think that has something to do with coaching — they’re putting him in a position to capitalize on his skill set — and that also has something to do with a player recognizing what he can do and making some plays. So I’m mildly surprised that he is having the success that he is having. When I evaluated him on film, he looks like one of those guys, ‘Oh, OK.’ But when you actually get a chance to see him play in person, you come away saying, ‘You know, that guy’s better than I thought.’ ’’

Hernandez continues to be targeted by Brady in man coverage. Eight of his 11 receptions in the past six games (72.7 percent) have beaten man-to-man defense, including all four of his receptions against the Packers.

Hernandez was able to lose Woodson for a 2-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday night when Brady had more than four seconds to throw the pass and Woodson got lost keeping one eye on Brady.

And in the fourth quarter, when Brady saw cornerback Sam Shields covering Hernandez, the quarterback audibled to get the tight end some space on the outside for a 10-yard score that was the final margin of victory.

Brady prefers to go to Gronkowski down the middle to beat zone coverages off play-action. But Gronkowski’s ability to beat man coverage by posting players up — such as Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery — is a big reason he is now New England’s top red-zone threat.

“Gronkowski gets in the low red [zone] and all he does is find the coverage that relates to him, runs right at the guy, gets into the end zone, and basically plays basketball and scores a timing touchdown,’’ Moss said.

And Gronkowski and Hernandez are doing this as rookies.

“Those guys are using their skill set at a maximum,’’ Moss said. “As long as they keep the other players executing their roles at a high level, I don’t see why they won’t continue to be a matchup problem. I definitely see that those guys are good role players within a system, and that’s what the Patriots are all about.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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