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They’re a winning pair

Tight ends spark Patriots offense

By Zuri Berry
Boston.com Staff / September 13, 2011

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - There are no worries at the tight end position for the Patriots.

In the fourth quarter of last night’s 38-24 win over the Dolphins, Tom Brady looked across the middle for one of his two second-year tight ends, Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. On this particular play, Brady hit Hernandez for 12 yards to bring the Patriots to the Dolphins’ 5-yard line. But it appeared Hernandez fumbled. No worries, because Gronkowski was there to scoop it up. It didn’t matter that Hernandez was ruled down by contact. What mattered is that they play well together. It’s a bonus that they pick up after each other.

As Brady set a franchise record with 517 passing yards, the tight ends were featured prominently. Gronkowski caught five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half. His touchdown, a 10-yard strike on an out pattern to the pylon, was an anomaly for the group. He had been doing his dirty work over the middle of the field. He finished with six catches for 86 yards.

As Brady began to heat up, Hernandez came alive.

“When you have a great quarterback who puts the ball at the right spot all the time, it’s easy to make a catch,’’ Hernandez said. “Tight ends are used a lot in this offense. And Tom knows how to get us the ball.’’

It’s a far cry from 2009, when New England’s tight ends were sparsely used. Benjamin Watson was the lead tight end, finishing with 29 receptions for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Hernandez and Gronkowski combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards, and 16 touchdowns last year.

“Rob takes a lot off of me,’’ said Hernandez. “He’s so dynamic that a lot of people have to worry about him and forget about me. Sometimes they forget about him and they have to worry about me, so it’s a great combination.’’

Hernandez was targeted five times in the third quarter and collected 45 yards. Most of his damage came over the middle. His 30-yard catch in the third quarter set up his 1-yard TD grab and extended the Patriots’ lead to 28-17. Another couple of receptions in the fourth gave him seven catches for 103 yards.

“He’s a beast,’’ Gronkowski said. “Great teammate to have, a great tight end. Dude goes out there and gets open. He helps in the running game and everything. It’s great to have each other and push each other.’’

And then there’s Gronkowski’s brother, Dan, who made his Patriots debut after being picked up last week. Besides one miscue (a false start in the third quarter), he played well in a blocking role.

“That’s cool that he’s on the team and everything and he had a good game too,’’ Rob said.

That’s one less worry for the Patriots, and one more worry for their opponents.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.

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