The gravitational pull of Gronk is something we’ve discussed. When he’s on the field, he draws the direct attention of two players and – at times – the divided attention of a third. A jam off the line, a redirect at the linebacker level and then a safety hanging over the top to discourage leading throws down the seam. All those are Gronk treatments that defenses won’t have to use against Matt Mulligan, for instance.
Losing Gronkowski is like allowing the defense to add a defender, said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“When you have players that can be as productive as Rob has been, some defenses pay a tremendous amount of attention to him and have done that to other players on our team at different times,” McDaniels explained Tuesday. “They may say they want to try to double him, may say they want to try to jam him or bump him or do different things, and you can tell that that was really their plan going into the game, because it’s obvious that they changed some of the things that you had seen on film to do those things.
“When he’s not in there, then certainly (defenses) may be more inclined to do more of the things that they’re used to doing,” McDaniels added. “They don’t necessarily need to account for a player at that position to be such an incredible challenge as you presented.”
Going back to last season, the Patriots are 11-3 in games where Gronkowski was either out or of limited importance (the season finale against Miami and playoff game against Houston, for instance).
The Patriots, McDaniels noted, are used to life without Gronk.
“We’ve experienced playing without him before,” McDaniels said. “Any time you lose a player like that or you can’t use a player like that, you need to put your time into a few different things, and other people have to play different roles. You play offense a little differently, and we do have experience doing that. We did it at the beginning of this year for a significant number of weeks, we did it in the offseason, we did it last year during the course of the season as well, so we’ve experienced this before. I think for that reason, we kind of have an idea of exactly what we need to use and how to kind of formulate our game plan to max out our strengths and try to make up for the loss of a very unique player.”
Part of playing without Gronkowski, at least in this first week, is forecasting what defenses will try to load up against in Gronk’s absence.
“When you begin to put together a game plan for your players, you certainly have to base it on something,” McDaniels explained. “There are a lot of factors that can go into that, especially in a divisional game. One, we have experience playing against this team this year that we can look back on, and that’s always a challenge in itself, because you did some things that you liked and they did some things that they liked, and how much do you want to stay the same versus how much do you want to adjust?
"But you do get a feeling for what they felt they had to do defensively to try to stop you, and at the same time, you put out there what you felt was best about trying to do offensively against them,” he continued. So there’s that plan, and you always have to start with something, so definitely when we begin, we say, ‘Look, let’s put together a plan based on these factors in anticipation of these types of things being played on defense,’ and then you need to adjust as soon in the game as you find out that that’s not the case. Then you’ve got to do everything you can to try to make an adjustment quickly.”
Sunday would seem a day where the Patriots and Dolphins will be playing a little bit of chess in the first half.