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Are officials targeting Gronkowski for offensive pass interference?

Rob Gronkowski was flagged for two offensive pass interference penalties against the Broncos, but one was offset with another penalty.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski lined up across from Broncos safety David Bruton Jr. on a third and 5 at New England's 25-yard line in the fourth quarter. His was team up, 21-17, with just over five minutes to go during Sunday night's game.

Quarterback Tom Brady fired a pass to Gronkowski, who barreled 10 yards to gain a first down, keeping the drive alive.

But a flag hit the turf. Offensive pass interference, No. 87, offense.

The Denver crowd erupted in cheers. New England fans on Twitter were livid.

Gronkowski used his left elbow and shoulder against Bruton before cutting out to catch the pass, but officials ruled enough contact was made to warrant a penalty.


"That is as close on that call as you can get, and that's what Brady's saying," NBC's Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast. "He's saying [Gronkowski] did not push off. He had his arm bent, which typically if you're on the edge of the guy, you get the benefit of the doubt. But that is one that, honestly, it could go either way."

In 11 games this season, officials have flagged Gronkowski for offensive pass interference five times, more than his first five seasons combined (four). (Those figures include only penalties that were accepted and were not offset by another penalty. He has been flagged for offensive pass interference 13 times in his career. Three were offset, one was declined)

Gronkowski is second among all receivers in total penalties this season with eight, behind Washington's Jordan Reed, who has nine. Not only does he lead all receivers with five OPI penalties, but only one other team has five OPIs — the Redskins. Gronkowski alone has more OPI flags than 30 other teams.

Gronkowski's five OPI penalties have stirred a discussion about the possibility of officials cracking down specifically on him, especially considering only 11 other players have been flagged for OPI has many as two times. Just two — Reed and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans — have been flagged three times.


Even Gronkowski believes he is being targeted, tweeting "Agree" Tuesday about an article arguing that point.

The NFL rulebook describes pass interference as contact 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage that "significantly hinders" a receiver's chance to catch a pass. It also states an offensive player cannot block more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage before a pass is thrown.

"Rob very rarely, if ever, extends his arms, and we try to make sure that we don't do that," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on a conference call Tuesday. "And I think that we try to make sure that we're not the one that's pushing or shoving or shoving or trying to move the defender in any way that's illegal."

McDaniels said Gronkowski's size may be a factor.

"I think a lot of time, the contact is initiated, and the question is who's initiating it," he said. "And we're fortunate to have a guy who is a big athlete and is bigger than the guys who are covering him, and at times I think sometimes we feel like the contact is made and because the other guy takes the brunt of it, sometimes we end up getting called for it."

In a Nov. 19 interview — when he had four OPIs to his name — Gronkowski said, "I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm playing football.


"I'm not sure what it is. I'm just going to keep playing how I've been playing, how I go out and practice and try and transition it to the games."

Here's what happened on the first four OPIs:

■ Gronkowski was flagged for two against Jacksonville. On second and 10 in the first quarter, he used his right elbow against cornerback Devon House (6-0, 196), wiping out a 13-yard gain from Brady to Danny Amendola.

Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski made a 46-yard field goal to make the score 10-0.

■ On first and 10 in the third quarter, Brady hit James White for a 5-yard gain, but Gronkowski blocked House before Brady's throw.

Three plays later, LeGarrette Blount scored on a 1-yard run after back-to-back defensive pass interference penalties set up the Patriots near the goal line.

■ His OPI against Miami negated a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Julian Edelman on first and goal in the second quarter. Gronkowski pushed off safety Reshad Jones (6-1, 218) while running a route.

On the next play, Dion Lewis scored on a 16-yard pass from Brady.

■ Against the Giants, Gronkowski pushed off cornerback Trevin Wade (5-10, 190), wiping out his 20-yard gain, which would have given the Patriots a first and 10 from their own 38.

Instead, the Patriots punted two plays later from their own 14. The Giants used the possession to kick a field goal and tie the score at 10-10.


After three of the five calls, the Patriots still went on to score on the drive.

Brady said on WEEI that it seems Gronkowski's only other option is to avoid all contact unless defenders contact him. He acknowledged that Patriots coaches have been in contact with the league about the penalties.

"They can obviously contact you within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, but now you're talking offensively you can't contact anybody within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage," said Brady. "I don't fully understand it.

"It's just one of those things when we're not getting the [call], and certainly Rob's not, because as you guys can see, it doesn't look like he's doing a lot of pushing."

McDaniels said that even though Gronkowski is not intentionally committing the penalties, the offense as a whole — tied for 18th in the league with 74 penalties — needs to clean up the errors.

"I think that the best thing we can do is try to coach Rob based on the way that we've been told we can play," McDaniels said. "We'll do everything we can to try to clean that up and help Rob and anybody else for that matter because we've been called for a few other ones along the way, too, to try to avoid those things coming up again."

Michael Whitmer and Alex Speier of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rachel G. Bowers can be reached at rachel.bowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @RachelGBowers.