It’s official: Rob Gronkowski doesn’t need to play in any preseason games to get ready for the real thing. And defenders need to start covering him just a little bit tighter.
With three scores Thursday night, Gronk passed Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant for most TD receptions since the start of the 2010 season with 57. And if he keeps putting up performances like he did against the Steelers pourous defense, Randy Moss’s NFL record of 23 touchdown receptions in a season — all via the right arm of Tom Brady in 2007 — could be in jeopardy. Gronk is now tied with Moss at the top of the Patriots record book by now having four games with three or more touchdown catches.
“It felt great to get out there, no doubt,’’ Gronkowski said. “It’s great to play the game of football. After not playing all preseason, it was the first game of the year and I’m not going to say I was in top-notch shape. It’s different when you go out there and play for real versus other opponents that are very good. I’m definitely a little rusty at some spots and can get better. Just got to keep working hard and keep improving.’’
What really needs to improve is a Steeler’s defense that left Gronk mostly uncovered on a rainy night at Gillette, especially on the big tight end’s first touchdown.
“Yeah, we went to the line pretty quickly, and it looked like they had some problems getting aligned,’’ Brady said about the 16-yard completion that put the Patriots up 7-0 in the second quarter. “And I was trying to call for the ball from the center. I was clapping my hands to let him know because there was a little bit of crowd noise, and I was just trying to get the ball in my hand so I could make the throw – just making sure we were set because I saw that they were misaligned. So anytime they don’t cover Gronk, [he] usually gets it, especially in a situation like that – kind of in the red area. I thought we did a good job capitalizing. That was a big play in the game.’’
Gronk concurred that the Patriots quickness paid off for the first score.
“Our offense was doing a great job getting to the line,’’ Gronkowski said. “We were hustling and getting set throughout the whole offense. Tom [Brady] just saw it, made the quick throw and I just had to make the play. It was good execution overall by the offense.’’
Gronk found paydirt again just seven minutes later when Brady connected with him on a six-yard touchdown pass right under the goal posts.
Brady was impressed with the next two touchdowns caught by Gronk as well.
’’The second one was the… oh yeah, that was a great play. He made a great catch, and that was a good one,’’ Brady said. “And then the fade was good. We lined up in the set before and threw a different pass to [Scott] Chandler, and he made a touchdown. And Gronk got out there and had a mismatch, and he’s such a big target out there. He has a great catch radius, so a lot of times, if just put it up there close he comes down with it.’’
Even Bill Belichick broke script and singled out Gronk’s effort.
“Rob did a nice job on that fade route of kind of stemming the defender in at the goal line and creating some separation,’’ Belichick said. “On the first touchdown, Rob’s slant, the linebacker had to go over the top.’’
The postgame love-in continued when Gronk poured accolades on his quarterback.
“Everything [Brady’s] been going through all offseason, he just came out, and he was on fire,’’ Gronkowski said. “I don’t know his stats or anything, but he was hitting all of the open guys, reading the defense well, calling the right plays. He’s just unreal.’’
Gronk’s new tight end colleague Scott Chandler picked up his first TD in a Patriots uniform, and sees the upside of lining up on the same side of the field as Gronkowski.
“I think it’s tough to matchup with Gronk no matter who you got,’’ Chandler said. “I think we can do some things to make it tough on teams trying to do some things to make it tough on us and we were able to capitalize on those situations.’’
Gronk finished the night with five receptions for 94 yards and three scores, tying a career high. He also had a 52-yard reception in the fourth quarter that matched his career long.
Gronkowski has now caught at touchdown pass in four straight regular-season games and has scored in the season opener five times in five tries.
Both of the Patriots big tight ends will be having a homecoming of sorts in Game 2 a week from Sunday when the team visits Buffalo. Gronk grew up Amherst, New York, just outside Buffalo while Chandler suited up in a Bills uniform for five years.
Photos from opening night at Gillette Stadium: