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Fab four: With no Gronk, expect their workload to increase

by: Christopher Price on Tue, 11/20/2012 - 12:40am

If Aaron Hernandez returns for the Patriots this week, it should lessen the blow of losing Rob Gronkowski. (AP)FOXBORO -- For the Patriots, the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski means more responsibility will be doled out to several offensive skill position players across the board in the coming weeks.

Replacing the Pro Bowler will be a significant test, even for an offensive unit that’s considered one of the best in the league: Gronkowski is not only considered an elite pass-catcher, he’s also evolved into one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. He’s a matchup nightmare in the red zone, and has one of the best target rates on the team.

But fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez thinks the New England offense is up to the challenge.

“The way this program is, the way [coach] Bill [Belichick] makes us become the players we become, we all have confidence and we all know we have to come to play every game, regardless,” Hernandez said after practice on Monday. “And in the NFL, people go down and other people have to step up.

“Everyone has to step up and make plays, and follow the game plan. I’m sure we’ll be all right,” he added. “Obviously, it’s tough. Obviously, he’s one of the best players in the league. But we have a lot of players, and everyone has to step up to fill the void.”

But there will be some players who will be asked to do more than others. With that in mind, here are four guys who will be asked to have a larger role while Gronkowski is on the sidelines.

Aaron Hernandez -- Gronkowski’s running mate hasn’t been right physically since he went down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. He played in two games since the injury (Oct. 14 and Oct. 21), but in hindsight, it appears he tried to rush back from the injury, and as a result he’s missed the last three games because of the setback. However, Hernandez has been very close to coming back the last two weeks -- he’s practiced more over the last two weeks, and appears likely to be at least a game-time decision Thursday against the Jets. While Hernandez doesn’t have the same physical presence -- and he’s nowhere near the same blocker that Gronkowski is -- the Patriots can get a reasonable facsimile of Gronkowski (at least statistically) if Hernandez returns to the lineup for Thursday's game.

One more thing: When healthy, Hernandez is as dynamic an offensive presence as there is in the NFL. A Swiss Army knife of a player, he can be deployed in any number of ways to put stress on an opposing defense. (Something we write about at great length here -- in the regular-season opener, he lined up at 10 different spots on the field.) No single offensive option in the league has his combination of speed, hands and flexibility. His return, even in the short term, would help deliver a jolt of offense in the wake of Gronkowski’s injury.

Stevan Ridley -- The Patriots have had more offensive balance this season than any season dating back to 2004, when Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 yards for New England. Entering Sunday’s game against the Colts, Ridley was sixth in the league in rushing with 814 yards -- in five of his 10 games this season, he rushed for at least 95 yards, and his 4.6 yards per carry shows the sort of consistency in the running game that the Patriots crave. Ridley certainly appears to be the short-term answer as the guy most likely to bring a jolt to the New England running game -- two of the six games the Patriots have left on their schedule are against the Jets and Jaguars, two teams that are in the bottom 10 when it comes to run defense. As a group, the running game will be expected to pick up the slack left by Gronkowski when it comes to working in the red zone. (The Pats could get a bump with the return of Brandon Bolden from suspension -- in limited reps this year, the undrafted free agent appeared to show some ability in the red zone, grinding out some tough yards.)

One more thing: The Patriots clearly have more faith in their running game this year as opposed to last year: Through 10 games in 2011, the Patriots had 1,110 yards on 262 carries -- a 4.2 yards-per-carry average -- and seven touchdowns. Through 10 games this season, the Patriots have 1,429 yards on 330 carries for a 4.3 YPC average and 10 touchdowns. (That’s an average of almost seven more carries a game.)

Brandon Lloyd -- While the bulk of the numbers for the receiver have been impressive (46 catches, 82 targets, 525 yards and three touchdowns) over the course of the first 10 games, the receiver has underwhelmed at times. That’s not to say there hasn’t been plenty of good -- he was dominant at times in the Sept. 23 loss to the Ravens when he came away with nine catches and 108 yards. But there have been some curious moments throughout the year involving Lloyd. (Chief among those was a one-catch game in the first contest against the Jets, a contest in which he was targeted a whopping eight times.) With Gronkowski on the shelf, expect Lloyd to have more opportunities going forward in the passing game.

One more thing: I understand that different receivers have different ways of operating and are asked to do different things within the overall context of the offense. But Lloyd’s inability to pick up yards after the catch -- particularly in this offense -- is just baffling. He has 107 yards after the catch this season, the third-fewest fewest YAC for any pass-catcher in the NFL with at least 40 receptions. (Lance Moore of the Saints has 82 YAC, while Malcom Floyd of the Chargers has 89.) On a team filled with pass-catchers who make a habit of picking up ground with the ball in their hands -- by way of comparison, 438 of Wes Welker’s 890 receiving yards this season have come after the catch -- it’s interesting.

Julian Edelman -- We started the season wondering why Edelman was seeing so much playing time (ostensibly at the expense of Welker), as the former college quarterback had 10 catches in his first three games of the season. That good start was halted after a hand injury in a Sept. 23 loss to the Ravens left him on the shelf for a month, but it appears that he’s returned to form nicely. On Sunday against the Colts, he had his best game of the season -- he finished with 222 total yards, including five catches (on seven targets) for 58 yards and a touchdown. (He also returned a punt for a touchdown and had a 47-yard rush.) Like the other receivers mentioned on this list, Edelman will have more opportunities with Gronkowski out of the picture, providing he can continue to stay healthy.

One more thing: On Sunday, Edelman scored on a 68-yard punt return in the second quarter and also had a 2-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to become the first Patriots player to score on a return and have a touchdown reception in the same game since Irving Fryar scored on a 5-yard touchdown reception and a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown vs. Indianapolis on Nov. 10, 1985.