Rob Gronkowski takes a big step
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — All signs pointed to Rob Gronkowski’s Sunday workload being limited, since he was playing for the first time since a nasty blow to the knee ended his 2013 season, and also because he didn’t appear in any of the Patriots’ four preseason games.
Playing in fewer than 50 percent of New England’s offensive snaps, Gronkowski made an impact — he caught four passes, including a touchdown — but it came in a 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium.
“It feels good to play football again, to be out there with the team,” said Gronkowski, who was injured last season in a Dec. 8 home game against Cleveland and played in just seven games. “You win as a team, lose as a team. I’ve just got to keep on improving every single week. I’ve got a lot of things to work on.”
Gronkowski checked in on the Patriots’ second offensive series, and made his appearances where you would expect: on third downs and in the red zone. Counting penalties, Gronkowski played 38 of 86 snaps. But because of the Patriots’ struggles in the second half, he was mostly on the sideline until late in the game; 13 of Gronkowski’s 15 second-half snaps came in the final 3:25.
Gronkowski was Tom Brady’s favorite target, at least in passes thrown his way. He targeted him 11 times, one more than Julian Edelman. But Brady and Gronkowski connected just four times, with those completions going for 40 yards.
The highlight was a 6-yard touchdown in the second quarter, which gave the Patriots a 17-7 lead. A patented Gronk spike followed.
“Always feels good to get the first one,” said Gronkowski, who extended his streak of catching at least one pass to 51 consecutive games. “Just a little slant and Tom scrambled . . . and saw me going across the end zone and he hit me on the pass.”
Perhaps most importantly, Gronkowski said he felt fine physically after his first game back. He wore a protective brace on his right knee, and what looked like the same elbow/forearm gear that he wore last year after recovering from a broken arm that cut short his 2012 season.
Up and down day for Revis
Cornerback Darrelle Revis, the marquee addition to the Patriots’ defense, didn’t have any interceptions, but he did recover a second-quarter fumble. He wasn’t in there at the end of the game, missing the Dolphins’ final two drives with what he confirmed were leg cramps.
“I’m fine. Some minor stuff going on, but I’m fine. Very frustrating that I couldn’t be out there and help the team out in desperation mode,” Revis said.
Drawing the assignment on Mike Wallace (seven catches, 81 yards) for part of the game, Revis was still baffled over how Wallace caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill. Revis got his hand on the ball, but Wallace came up with the catch.
“I knocked the pass down and I thought it popped up like the post he ran earlier in the first half. My teammates were telling me that I hit it, and then it hit his knee or something and popped back up into his hands,” Revis said. “Got to tip your hat to Mike for keeping focus throughout the whole play and managing to come up with it some weird way.”
Four rookies on active list
The Patriots already had ruled defensive linemen Chris Jones and Michael Buchanan out for the game; both were limited in practice with ankle injuries. The other five to make up the seven-player inactive list: receiver Aaron Dobson, running back James White, linebacker Darius Fleming, and offensive linemen Bryan Stork and Josh Kline, none of whom were on the injury report. White and Kline, both rookies, have connections to Florida: White is from Fort Lauderdale, and Stork grew up in Vero Beach and played at Florida State.
Those inactive selections meant that four rookies made their official NFL debuts for the Patriots: defensive linemen Dominique Easley and Zach Moore, defensive back Malcolm Butler, and offensive lineman Cameron Fleming, who occasionally reported as an eligible receiver.
Easley, the team’s first-round draft pick, didn’t play in any of the four preseason games, and hadn’t played in a game since Sept. 21, 2013, when he was with the Florida Gators. Easley tore a knee ligament in practice and hadn’t played a game in almost a year.
“It didn’t feel too good because we lost,” Easley said. “That’s the only thing I really care about, helping the team win. So it wasn’t that good.”
Easley was credited with one tackle, but he also gave the Dolphins an automatic first down when he was penalized 5 yards for jumping offsides. The Dolphins capitalized on the penalty and converted it into a second-quarter field goal.
“It was fine. It was bad execution on my behalf,” Allen said. “I need to execute at a higher level, and that’s what I plan to do, and I’m going to put the work in to end up being an asset on this team.”
Key penalty stalled rally
Dolphins safety Jimmy Wilson took issue with the hit that Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell put on him in the fourth quarter, when Miami held a 23-20 lead but the Patriots were in Dolphins territory. LaFell drilled Wilson in an attempt to free Danny Amendola for a big gain, but offensive pass interference was called.
“It definitely wasn’t a clean hit at all; he hit me in the head,” said Wilson. “But that’s how you play football; that’s why they called a penalty. I’ve already got some texts from people that say it looked intentional, but hey, that’s football.
“That’s how you want them, backed up, got them off-schedule. So it actually helped us out.”
The penalty wiped out a 15-yard completion to Amendola that would have set the Patriots up in field-goal range, trailing by 3 points. Instead, after the penalty backed the ball across midfield, the Patriots failed to extend the drive, punted, and Miami then drove for a clinching touchdown.
Turnover streak is over
With two fumble recoveries and one interception, the Patriots forced three turnovers, and historically that meant victory was all but guaranteed. Entering the season, the Patriots had won 61 straight games in which they forced at least three turnovers, a streak that ended Sunday . . . Patrick Chung had never returned a kickoff in his NFL career, but he was the deep man lined up behind special teams captain Matthew Slater to start the game. Chung returned two kicks for a 25-yard average, with a long of 30. Devin McCourty returned the Dolphins’ last kickoff, and brought it back 27 yards . . . Brady’s 249 passing yards allowed him to jump past Warren Moon and into sixth place on the NFL’s career list. Moon had 49,325 yards in his career; Brady now has 49,398. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski gave Brady 360 career touchdowns, the fifth player to reach that number . . . The Dolphins now have back-to-back wins over the Patriots for the first time since the 2000-01 season. Miami also ended New England’s streak of season-opening victories at 10.