|Rob Gronkowski will likely miss the rest of the regular season.|
The debate over the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and whether he should have been playing during the fourth quarter of last weekend's convincing victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Gronkowski broke his arm on the team's final extra point in a 59-24 rout of their AFC rivals. Bill Belichick has always kept his starters in games for as long as possible to seize every opportunity to improve continuity and execute on offense. That style of coaching brings with it inevitable injury risks.
Much more important than the debate over whether Belichick should coach like that or not, is the Patriots' preparation for the New York Jets without Gronkowski this week. The Patriots don't have all week to design a gameplan without Gronkowski, they will face off against the Jets on Thanksgiving day this Thursday. Because players need time to recuperate after any game, the Patriots have a very tight window to overcome the loss of one of their most important players.
Offensively, Gronkowski is a vital piece for the scheme and execution. His ability to be a matchup nightmare, as he showed off against the Colts with seven easy receptions on seven targets for two touchdowns and 137 yards, restricts what opposing defenses can do against the passing game. When Gronkowski is on the field, it is almost impossible to play straight up man coverage. Whenever the Colts attempted to do so on Sunday, Brady immediately looked Gronkowski' direction for an easy completion and good gain.
Not only does Gronkowski become a dangerous weapon directly, but his indirect impact on how much blitzing the opposition can do and how they can approach other receivers with their coverage is major. Without Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd won't be as productive because they will become the focus of the defense. Also, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen won't get as big gaps to run through on the offensive line. Gronkowski's blocking ability is as good as many of the offensive linemen in the NFL, that allows the Patriots to essentially run with a heavy set against defenses that are set up to cover deep.
The Patriots do carry a lot of tight ends, because of the value the position plays in their scheme, but none can replace Gronkowski's impact. Aaron Hernandez could potentially return from an ankle injury this week, but even his speed and receiving ability doesn't completely complement the rest of the offense the way Gronkowski's all-around impact does.
Regardless of how much Hernandez plays, the Patriots will likely look to Visanthe Shiancoe to fill Gronkowski's role. Shiancoe is a veteran who spent most of his career with the Minnesota Vikings. He has played in two games this season, but does not have a single reception. That should change on Thursday, but don't expect him to come away with the gaudy numbers Gronkowski does from week-to-week. Shiancoe is a good tight end, but not good enough to replace a special one like Gronkowski.
The impact of Gronkowski's loss was felt in last season's Super Bowl against a New York based franchise, now while the Jets aren't the Giants by any means, they have played the Patriots close in recent seasons. The last three games between the two teams have been one-possession games in the fourth quarter, even though the Patriots have won all three by a combined 33 points. Even though the Jets lack talent this year on both sides of the ball, Rex Ryan generally gets the right approach for the Patriots and prepares his team for this game throughout the whole year.
Although the Jets have already lost to the Patriots this year, they lost by just three points in a game they easily could have won. Forcing the Patriots to play in New York, on a short week with a key contributor missing, could be the tipping point for the potential upset.