Sports

Alex Speier

NFL has few answers for a full-strength Gronk

Rob Gronkowski had seven receptions for 113 yards Sunday vs. the Bills.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Rob Gronkowski had seven receptions for 113 yards Sunday vs. the Bills.

The Patriots aren’t entirely unstoppable when Rob Gronkowski is armed with his full array of superpowers. It only seems that way.

The Patriots tight end transforms offensive game-planning like few others, with the near impossibility of defining adequate man-to-man coverage strategies opening up the field for his quarterback in a way seen by a few teams in NFL history. When a 6-foot-6, 265-pound freight train can take a deep ball down the middle for a 36-yard gain or turn a quick 5-yard out into a 23-yard gain — both plays made by Gronkowski against the Bills in the Patriots’ 40-32 win on Sunday — then the options presented to Tom Brady multiply quickly.

Bills coach Rex Ryan had given the Patriots offenses stiff Week 2 challenges while with the Jets, holding the Patriots to season-low point totals in all three meetings between the Jets and Patriots in Week 2 of the season since 2009. But it’s worth noting that all three came when Gronkowski had been at something less than full force.

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In 2009, Gronkowski was still in college when Ryan’s Jets beat the Pats, 16-9. In 2010, the rookie Gronkowski had yet to emerge as a New England offensive centerpiece in Week 2, catching just one ball for 14 yards in a 28-14 New York win. And in 2013, when the Patriots claimed a narrow 13-10 win over New York, Gronkowski was sidelined while still recovering from his forearm and back surgeries.

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This time, much to the chagrin of Ryan and his new team, Gronkowski was indeed available, with eyebrow-raising results. The Patriots posted more points (40) than they had in the three previous Week 2 meetings with Ryan combined (36), with Gronkowski getting targeted 13 times, making seven receptions, and racking up 113 yards and a touchdown.

The afternoon continued Gronkowski’s steady march up the NFL’s record books. A few markers of his massive impact, both through two games of this season and in 67 career regular-season contests:

■ Gronkowski’s 207 receiving yards through two weeks are the most to open a season in his career and the fifth-most ever for a tight end.

Gronk through 2 games, 2010-15
Year (age) Targeted Receptions Yards TD
2015 (26) 21 12 207 4
2014 (25) 17 8 72 1
2012 (23) 15 12 135 2
2011 (22) 13 10 172 3
2010 (21) 3 2 15 1
SOURCE: pro-football-reference.com

■ With three receptions of 20 or more yards on Sunday, he has 79 plays of that length in his career, the seventh-most by any receiver in the NFL from 2010 to 2015, behind only Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, DeSean Jackson, Andre Johnson, Dez Bryant, and Vincent Jackson.

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■ He’s one of 34 players with four or more receiving touchdowns through the first two weeks of the season; only four players have ever had more touchdown catches through the first two weeks.

■ Gronkowski has 58 career receiving touchdowns, most ever for a tight end in his first six NFL seasons and tied for ninth-most ever by any receiver, with a good chance that he’ll get at least six more touchdown catches this year to push past everyone in history except Jerry Rice (79) and Randy Moss (77) for touchdown receptions through his first six NFL seasons.

■ He already ranks seventh all-time in touchdown catches by a tight end, with a great shot at surpassing current fourth-place holder Shannon Sharpe (62) this year, leaving him behind only Tony Gonzalez (111), Antonio Gates (99), and Harold Carmichael (79). Gronkowski has played more than 100 fewer games than each of the six tight ends ahead of him on the career touchdowns list.

■ He has accumulated 4,586 career receiving yards – seventh-most ever by a tight end through his first six years. He’s got the record held by Kellen Winslow (5,176) within reach, though it is worth noting that Jimmy Graham (4,814 career receiving yards) is in his sixth year in the NFL.

The result of his King Kong-sized impact? The Patriots offense has been a juggernaut with Gronkowski, while becoming significantly less prolific when he’s been either out or meaningfully reduced. That notion has become clear over the last three seasons, with Gronkowski either absent or performing well below his standards for significant stretches.

The Gronk effect
Note: Gronkowski's first four games of 2014, in which he was working his way back from ACL/MCL surgery, are treated as games in which the Patriots were "without" Gronkowski.
Record Points/gm
2012 With Gronkowski 8-3 35.1
2012 Without Gronkowski 4-1 34.2
2013 With Gronkowski 5-2 32
2013 Without Gronkowski 7-2 24.4
2014 "With" Gronkowski* 10-1 34.5
2014 "Without" Gronkowski* 2-3 17.8
2012-14 With Gronkowski 23-6 34.1
2012-14 Without Gronkowski 13-6 25.3
SOURCE: pro-football-reference.com

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In 2012, the five-game impact of Gronkowski’s absence while recovering from a forearm fracture was relatively limited, the team’s scoring dropped from 35.1 to 34.2 points per game, though his absence was felt when the Gronkowski-less Pats were bounced from the AFC championship game by the Ravens while scoring just 13 points.

In 2013, Gronkowski played just seven games, missing the start of the year due to the lengthy recovery from his forearm injury and the end due to a knee blowout. With the tight end, the Patriots averaged 32 points a game; without him, they averaged 24.4 points.

Last year, Gronkowski played at a level that fell short of his lofty standards through the first four weeks while regaining his footing following ACL/MCL surgery. In those four games as well as a Week 17 contest in which he didn’t play, the Patriots averaged just 17.8 points; in 11 games from Week 5 (Gronkowski’s first 100-yard game of 2014) through Week 16, they nearly doubled that scoring average, with 34.5 points a game.

Now, including the start of this year, the Patriots are 12-1 with 447 points (34.4/game) in the last 13 regular-season games that Gronkowski has played. Add in last year’s playoffs, and those numbers rise to 15-1 with 555 points (34.7/game). In five other games, they were 2-3.

Gronkowski is off to the kind of start that would permit him to challenge his single-season tight end records for touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327), both set in 2011. It remains to be seen whether he can sustain this blistering pace, but to this point, it’s clear that the rest of the NFL has found few answers for him, making Gronkowski a game-changer like few other pass catchers in league history.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.