Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots’ 6-foot-6 happy-go-lucky superhuman tight end, has appeared in only one of the last four Dolphins-Patriots games, but he usually creates considerable angst for Miami when he does.
With some new personnel injected into their pass defense, the Dolphins hope that isn’t again the case when the teams meet Sunday in Foxborough, presuming Gronkowski plays. Though he played last Sunday against Detroit, he’s listed as questionable for the Dolphins game with an ankle injury.
“He’s one of best tight ends in the league if not the best,” safety T.J. McDonald said. “We need to make sure we execute our plan and make somebody else beat us.”
Gronkowski caught five passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns in New England’s 35-17 win against the Dolphins on Thanksgiving weekend last year, then missed the Dolphins’ Monday night win against New England two weeks later because of a suspension for a late hit on a Buffalo Bills player.
Reshad Jones, who is expected to play Sunday after missing the Oakland game with a shoulder injury, covered Gronkowski on four of his targets in that first game last season, and two went for touchdowns.
In fact, Jones has allowed three TD passes to Gronkowski in the last three games that he has played against Miami, including one in a 2015 game in which he caught six passes for 113 yards.
“He’s probably the best tight end to ever play,” Jones said this week. “He does everything well.”
What Gronkowski did against Jones is reflective of how he dominates the Dolphins.
In 11 career games against Miami, Gronkowski has caught 44 of 79 targets (55.7 percent) for 688 yards (a 15.6 average) and eight touchdowns. New England is 9-2 in those games.
Jones said the key is “not giving him a free release” to move unabated down the field, but that’s easier said than done.
And after allowing the most catches and second-most yards in the league to tight ends last season, the Dolphins have improved only slightly.
Last season, tight ends caught 94 passes against Miami, or 5.8 per game. This season, it’s five per game, with Tennessee’s Delani Walker (four receptions for 52 yards) and Oakland’s Jared Cook (five for 31) inflicting some damage.
Last season, the Dolphins allowed 1034 yards to tight ends (four yards better than league-worst Oakland), which is 64.6 yards per game. This year, Miami is allowing 62 yards per game to tight ends.
Gronkowsi so far has 13 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown, and his brother Chris told The Boston Globe that Gronk is frustrated by frequent double-teams against him.
“Usually a tight end is being covered by a linebacker, who really can’t cover anyone,” Chris Gronkowski said. “When you’re giving up two of your best defenders — two safeties or a corner and a safety — to cover a tight end, your guys on the outside should be able to win. It’s just super frustrating to watch, and they’ve got to figure something out. I can just tell by his emotions, his facial features, that he’s super frustrated with it. He just wants to get the ball in his hands and make plays. But you just can’t do it when no one else is getting open.”
Based on the varied approach the Dolphins have used to defend tight ends this season, Gronkowski can expect a bunch of defenders on him at different times Sunday.
According to Pro Football Focus, seven Dolphins have handled coverage against tight ends in the first three games of the season. Per PFF, here’s how they have fared:
▪ Jones: Has allowed two of four passes against tight ends to be caught for 26 yards and an interception.
▪ McDonald: Has allowed three of five passes against tight ends to be caught for 50 yards.
▪ Cornerback Bobby McCain: Has allowed one of two tight end targets to be caught for 17 yards.
▪ Corner/safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: Usually matched up against receivers, Fitzpatrick has allowed one of two tight end targets to be caught for 12 yards.
▪ Linebacker Kiko Alonso: When covering a tight end, he has allowed two of four targets to be caught (by by Cook), for 21 yards.
▪ Linebacker Raekwon McMillan: Against tight ends, has allowed two of three targets to be caught for 21 yards
▪ Linebacker Jerome Baker: Has allowed all four tight end targets to be caught for 39 yards.
Baker, who’s 6-2 and 225 pounds, said he hopes he has the change to cover Gronkowski, even though Gronk is four inches taller and 43 pounds heavier.
“Gronk is a beast, the real deal,” Baker said. “Ever in Madden [video game], I have Gronk all the time. [But] I’m not backing down from Gronk. It will be a pleasure to go against him.”
Defensive end Andre Branch (knee), linebacker Chase Allen (foot) and tight end A.J. Derby (foot) were ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Receiver DeVante Parker has a quadriceps issue and was limited in practice, which explains why he’s listed as questionable. But he was walking on field and around locker-room and did not appear to be limping or favoring his leg.
Defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), Jones (shoulder), defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (ankle) and backup offensive tackle Sam Young (shoulder) were also listed as questionable but practiced fully and are expected to play.
Cam Wake lashed out at the NFL Friday. Please click here for details.