MIAMI — There are no worries in the tight ends department.
In the fourth quarter, as the Patriots’ offensive machine was grinding away at the Miami Dolphins in their 38-24 win Monday night, and Tom Brady was on a crusade to blow up the record books, TB12 stepped back and looked across the middle for one of his two steady companions, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. On this particular play, he hit Hernandez for 12 yards to bring the Patriots down to the Dolphins 5-yard line. But it appeared Hernandez had fumbled the ball. No worries, Gronkowski was right there to swoop it up. It didn’t matter that Hernandez was ruled down by contact. What matters is that the two play well together, almost complimentary, and have become the Patriots’ latest concoction of poisons from which to choose. It’s just a bonus that they pick up after each other.
As Brady eclipsed career highs in passing yardage (517), the tight ends duo was featured prominently. First, Gronkowski tore up the first half, catching five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. His touchdown, a 10-yard strike from Brady 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 grabs and 86 yards.
Then, 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 the Patriots’ tight ends were sparsely used. At the time, Benjamin Watson was the Patriots’ lead tight end. He finished the 2009 season with 29 receptions for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Hernandez and Gronkowski combined for 87 catches, 1109 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. After Monday night, that doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
“I guess that’s why they drafted us,” Hernandez said. Rob [Gronkowski] takes a lot off of me. He’s so dynamic that a lot of people have to worry about him, and forget about me. Sometimes they forget about him and have to worry about me, so it’s a great combination.”
Hernandez was targeted five times in the third quarter and tallied 45 yards. Again, mostly 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. He wasn’t done in the third quarter though. Another couple of receptions in the fourth put him over the century mark, giving 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 the matter of Gronkowski’s brother, Dan, who made his debut for the Patriots after being picked up five days prior. 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 Gronkowski said. “He had a great blocking game overall and he played a lot. It was awesome to be out there with him.”
That’s one less worry for the Patriots, and one heap of worries for the NFL.