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PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK

Rob Gronkowski was able to take some big hits — and that’s a good sign

Miami’s T.J. McDonald (22) goes low, and teammate Kiko Alonso goes high to take down Rob Gronkowski.
Miami’s T.J. McDonald (22) goes low, and teammate Kiko Alonso goes high to take down Rob Gronkowski.(jim davis/globe staff)

One thing that stood out from Rob Gronkowski’s vintage performance Sunday (non-final-play category) was that the Patriots counted on him to make plays, get hit, and get back up again. Sometimes it seems as if they try to preserve the tight end by not sending him over the middle as much as they do when he’s at his best, but that wasn’t the case against the Dolphins.

Gronkowski caught eight passes on eight targets for 107 yards and a touchdown, withstanding some big hits along the way. He took one from T.J. McDonald on a pass over the middle to the Dolphins’ 2-yard line in the second quarter and another tough shot from Bobby McCain and Raekwon McMillan in the fourth quarter on a 16-yard gain.

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On a conference call Tuesday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels credited Gronkowski’s toughness, noting that the way defenders are required to tackle by the rules this year means that he generally gets hit low.

“Gronk’s certainly one of the tougher ones in the league at that position,” McDaniels said. “I think because of his size and where he usually catches the football, which is in between the numbers, there’s a lot of bodies that eventually come downhill towards him and have an opportunity to make a decision how they want to try to tackle him.

“Most of those people usually go low. They could choose to do some other thing, but a lot of times they go low because of how big he is and the concept of trying to tackle him high generally isn’t high on everybody’s wish list.”

Seeing Gronkowski hit in the air as he goes over the middle isn’t exactly high on the Patriots’ wish list, but it’s an evil that’s often necessary in important situations. Gronkowski clearly hasn’t been himself this season, but he has shown flashes of his typical explosiveness and mobility recently. He had some of it against the Jets before a tough day against the Vikings, then had it back against the Dolphins.

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“There’s no question that playing his position at his size and understanding what happens in our league now with the emphasis on not hitting people in the head and all the rest of it is it requires a tremendous amount of courage to go in there and continue to run pass routes inside,” McDaniels said.

“You know you’re eventually going to incur some punishment, some hits, and thankfully most of those are not to the head and neck area anymore, and that’s a good thing.”

Taking the blame

Bill Belichick said that the bad situational defense that allowed the Dolphins to stun the Patriots on the last play Sunday “starts with me,” but defensive play-caller Brian Flores took a step further in taking responsibility when asked about it Tuesday.

“That’s on us as a coaching staff,” Flores said. “It happened, we wish it hadn’t, we’ve watched it, we’ve corrected it as a staff, we’ve corrected it with the team, and really honestly, we’ve got to move on to Pittsburgh.”

Presumably, the correction had to do with the decision that led to Gronkowski being on the field and sounder tackler Devin McCourty being off it as the Dolphins hook-and-lateraled to a stunning win. It’s not exactly new information that coaching was to blame, but notable that Flores said it so clearly.

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“If that situation kind of shows up again, I think we’ll handle it better,” Flores said.

Zoned in?

One thing to watch Sunday against the Steelers will be the defense Pittsburgh chooses to employ against New England.

Traditionally, the Steelers have played a lot of zone, with little to show for it. Last year, defensive coordinator Keith Butler conceded on Pittsburgh radio that they “can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots.”

Then, against the Patriots, the Steelers played a lot of zone.

McDaniels said that, in general, it’s unwise to expect big changes from a team as committed to its bread and butter as Pittsburgh.

“There’s plenty of carryover from what we’ve competed against in the past,” McDaniels said. “They’ve got a certain volume of things that, I would say, are core things to them, that they do each year.”


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.