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Patriots’ tight ends still playing key role

Without the support of tight ends like Matthew Mulligan, left, Stevan Ridley and the Patriots running backs would not have had as much success lately.

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Without the support of tight ends like Matthew Mulligan, left, Stevan Ridley and the Patriots running backs would not have had as much success lately.

FOXBOROUGH — The National Football League tracks many offensive and defensive statistics, but it does not recognize assists for making a key block on a touchdown.

But if there was such a stat, LeGarrette Blount said, “I’d be the first one to give a couple of assists out.’’

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The bruising Blount, who set a Patriots record with four rushing TDs in last Saturday’s 43-22 divisional-round romp over the Colts, knows the team’s tight ends are worthy of such statistical recognition.

After Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending knee injury and was placed on injured reserve Dec. 9, the Patriots adjusted their schemes and used the tight ends as extra blockers in a newfound ground-and-pound rushing attack.

“They get just as much credit as the offensive line,’’ Blount said. “I feel like our entire offensive line should be in the Pro Bowl. And our tight ends should definitely be there as well because they’ve done a tremendous job all season opening up these holes for us.

“That’s one of the huge reasons why we’ve gotten those big runs.’’

That was never more evident than on Blount’s 73-yard touchdown with 13:08 left in the fourth quarter against the Colts.

It was the longest play of the game, and proved to be a breaking point for the Colts.

Blount lowered the boom when he went off right guard and ran untouched to give the Patriots a 36-22 lead. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui delivered the crushing block on Colts linebacker Robert Mathis.

Rare is the occasion when a tight end is able to pancake a linebacker of Mathis’s caliber, but it wasn’t the first time Hoomanawanui had flat-backed (or is it flap-jacked?) an opponent.

“God, I would hope not, this being my fourth year [in the league],’’ Hoomanawanui said Wednesday.

“But, yeah . . . Yes, I have had [a pancake block] before,’’ he said, sheepishly.

Was it a wham block on Mathis? “No, just a base block, one on one, may the best man win,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “I did my part and didn’t want him sneaking in on that play because he’s a great player.

“But it was a total team effort, starting with everyone on the O-line. It starts with guys like Logan [Mankins] being a leader on this team and definitely on the O-line. Seeing his toughness, it just trickles on down from Tom [Brady], the backs and even the receivers doing their part in the running game and getting down their blocks.’’

The efforts of tight ends Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan — and even fullback James Develin — in the Patriots’ resurgent running game has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by teammates.

“I think that the game, with the way it is now, no one ever talks about a blocking tight end,’’ Mankins said. “It’s how many catches they have. The tight ends on our team have been vital to our running success and they have done a great job.

“They don’t get much credit for it, but you’re never going to get to the edge if your tight end can’t block,’’ Mankins added. “And there are a lot of plays that we run right behind those guys so they’ve got to do a good job for our backs to have success.’’

The recent success of the Patriots’ running game, though, has come at the expense of the passing game, especially for the tight ends.

Mulligan, who has been signed and released and re-signed, had a pair of catches for 16 yards in the regular season, including a 1-yard TD, but is still waiting to make the first postseason catch of his career.

“I mean, I enjoy it any time we win. That’s what it all comes down to,’’ Mulligan said. “That’s the ultimate goal. As far as my accolades go or any recognition goes, I could care less. It’s all about winning and it always helps to have running backs like we do to help make my job easier.’’

Hoomanawanui had 12 catches for 136 yards and one memorable one-handed TD catch in 2013. He recorded his first postseason catch against the Colts.

“Would I like to catch the ball more?’’ Hoomanawanui said. “Oh, who wouldn’t? I’m sure some linemen would love to catch the ball, too. It’s always nice when you can be a factor in the passing game and the running game. But, like I said, whatever it takes to win and lately for us, it’s been running the ball.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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