FOXBOROUGH — Rob Gronkowski is smart enough not to volunteer himself for Bill Belichick’s doghouse.
The Patriots coach often swats away reflective questions with a terse “we’re focused on . . . ,” then pivots to whatever task is ahead. His players often carry that approach through their own interviews. There is simply no time to waste dwelling on the past.
So when Gronkowski was asked Thursday about the Patriots’ most recent matchup with the Carolina Panthers, he deflected as best he could. The 2013 Monday night game ended with a Tom Brady interception in the end zone. Linebacker Luke Kuechly bear-hugged Gronkowski and a flag was thrown, but officials waved off the penalty, sealing the Panthers’ victory.
“Yeah, that was 2013 — we’re not going back there,” Gronkowski said with a grin. “Then I’ll have to listen about how I went back to 2013. Only looking forward.”
Gronkowski couldn’t help himself, though, when reminded that Kuechly said this week that he “might’ve got away with one.”
“Might be right,” Gronkowski said.
It might be beneficial for Gronkowski and the Patriots if Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium does not come down to the closing seconds, though it could be a challenge against the Panthers’ stout defense.
Carolina ranks first in the league in overall defense and third in pass defense. It has given up an average of 162 passing yards per game. The linebacking corps, led by Kuechly, is particularly impressive.
“It’s hard to fool him,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I mean, he doesn’t take many false steps, so he’s usually headed to where the ball’s headed to right away. So he beats a lot of blocks or gets to his area in coverage very quickly, sometimes before you do as a route runner or as a blocker.”
Linebacker Shaq Thompson is a challenge for opposing tight ends. He fits the new hybrid mold for defenders, a cross between a linebacker and a safety suited to defend the passing game. At 6 feet, 230 pounds, Thompson has the right blend of strength and speed to keep up with players such as Gronkowski.
“They’re skilled, they’re fast, too, especially at the linebacker position,” Gronkowski said. “The speed they have is quick. When we get the ball, we can’t be running back and forth, got to be going north and south to gain yards because they’ll just catch up with us.
“[Thompson] definitely factors in — but you’ve got to prepare for it all. They mix it up. You never know what’s going to be next on the call.”
Since a slow start in Week 1 when Gronkowski caught just two passes for 33 yards, he has hauled in 14 catches for 205 yards and has a touchdown in each of the last two games.
Patriots running back Rex Burkhead missed his fifth consecutive practice Thursday because of a rib injury, and it is unlikely he’ll be available against the Panthers.
Burkhead had fit into the offense as a dynamic pass-catching running back but was held out of last week’s win against the Texans because of the injury. He caught a 19-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive against the Saints in Week 2.
For the second consecutive day, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and right tackle Marcus Cannon were limited participants. Hightower, who sprained his knee in Week 1, has not played since, and Cannon was out against the Texans because of a concussion and ankle injury.
Wide receivers Phillip Dorsett (knee) and Danny Amendola (knee), safety Nate Ebner (shoulder), cornerback Eric Rowe (groin), and special teams captain Matthew Slater (hamstring) were all limited. Slater has yet to play this season.
About the Benjamin
Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters that wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will play Sunday “barring a setback.” Benjamin, who missed the 2015 season because of a torn ACL, had a scare last Sunday when he landed awkwardly on the left knee after a tackle. He has caught nine passes for 110 yards through the first three weeks.