David Butler II/USA Today Sports

While Patriots make annual December push, it's apparent Gronk will largely be a bystander

Alex Reimer
December 03, 2018 - 9:28 am

The Patriots delivered one of their most complete wins of the season when they ousted the Vikings at Gillette Stadium Sunday. And Rob Gronkowski was largely a bystander. 

Gronk was held to just three catches and 26 yards, with his longest reception coming when Brady found him over the middle of the field for a 15-yard gain during the Patriots’ explosive touchdown drive in the third quarter. The series was book-ended with two 24-yard passes to Josh Gordon. 

Gordon bursted into the end zone on his second grab of the sequence, showing off the dynamic playmaking ability that has evaded him at times in Foxboro. It looks like Gordon is rounding into form as the season enters its final phase. The same cannot be said for Gronkowski.

Sunday started with another Palace Intrigue report involving the Hall of Fame tight end, with ESPN’s Jeff Darlington saying on NFL Sunday Countdown that Gronk is still “dealing with the rigors of The Patriot Way and the rigors and the beating that his body is taking.” Gronkowski has been battling back and ankle injuries for the bulk of the season, missing three games. 

After playing 69 snaps against the Jets last week, Gronk was only listed on the injury report Thursday. But he barely resembles the All-World tight end who would regularly carry defenders on his back down the field or shove them out of his way. Gronkowski’s lack of burst was most apparent late in the second quarter, when Brady found him on a 2nd-and-5 for his first reception of the game. Vikings safety Anthony Harris stuffed Gronk one yard shy of the first-down marker, and the 265-pound behemoth barely put up a fight.

Even as recently as last season, Gronkowski may have carried Harris for additional yards or discarded him like a piece of trash. That was not the case Sunday. 

Gronk was also physically overpowered midway through the third quarter. Brady targeted him on 3rd-and-15, but cornerback Mackensie Alexander was able to break up the pass. Troy Aikman correctly pointed out Gronkowski did not come back to the ball, allowing Alexander to get in there with little resistance. 

On the Patriots’ next possession, Gronk’s 15-yard catch did set up Gordon’s touchdown. But he gingerly returned to his feet after taking a low tackle from hard-hitting safety Harrison Smith. It was reminiscent of Gronkowski’s performance against the Bills, when he appeared wobbly in the aftermath of a big hit down the sidelines. 

Brady has his full compliment of weapons on paper, but it’s clear Gronk is not right. He can still produce the occasional game-changing play, such as his touchdown catch against the Jets last week, but those moments are fleeting. 

The Patriots will have to be judicious about how they use Gronkowski going forward. Last December, he caught 23 passes for 382 yards. Brady will likely have to find someone else to fill that void as New England makes its annual push for the No. 1 seed.