FOXBORO -- Going into last week's game with the Browns, Matthew Mulligan knew the Browns secondary liked to tackle low. He saw it in the first half. He saw it again -- and the devastating results those kinds of hits can have -- in the third quarter when fellow Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury when tackled by Browns safety TJ Ward.
After Mulligan made a 15-yard catch in the fourth quarter to help set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, he ran along the sideline and saw one of those low-flying missiles headed his way. Mulligan left his feet, something he said he never does.
"Because of how things had been depicted early in the game and their past history as far as how they tackled, I thought it'd be a good idea," Mulligan said. "But I didn't set it up well. A little bit telegraphed. Obviously that won't be my go-to move."
Mulligan insisted he wasn't necessarily trying to protect his legs after seeing Gronkowski get injured. He thought he might be able to extend his run after the catch by hurdling a defender who he knew would try to tackle him low.
"Just based upon how they tackle as a group, their secondary tackles low," Mulligan said of his decision to go airborne. "Most of their guys did. That was the only reason.
"Just watch any film on them, that's what they'd done," he added. "Just in general, they made a lot of those types of tackles."
With Gronkowski injured, Mulligan's duties in the Patriots offense may shift. All of New England's tight ends -- Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui, DJ Williams -- may be called upon to play different roles.
Hoomanawanui has missed three straight games with a knee injury, but he has been on the practice field on both Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Williams was re-signed this week to the Patriots roster once Gronkowski was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
"You just do what you can do," Mulligan said. "Obviously we'd be lying if we said [Gronkowski's injury] didn't change things, but at the same time we have a job to do. We played the first part of the year without Rob, and I felt like we did a god job then too. I just think it's gotta be something where you move on, and you adjust, and you do the best with what you have.
"Our group is still very talented. Obviously we can make plays. We can block. We can run. We can catch. Otherwise we wouldn't be tight ends. I think we'll be fine and we'll just do the things that we can do, and worry about what we can control, and we'll go on from there."
Together Mulligan (2 catches, 16 yards, 1 touchdown), Hoomanawanui (10 catches, 114 yards) and fullback James Develin (4 catches, 62 yards) aren't going to replicate Gronkowski's production (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 touchdowns in seven games). They may be asked to do more, though, with Gronkowski out.
"I would say our offense is pretty much our offense," Tom Brady said on Wednesday. "So the other guys that are going to be in there filling that role and playing tight end for us have to do a great job. We always try to find ways to use a guy’s skill set, and we run it decent at times, we throw it decent at times. I mean, it’s disappointing to lose anybody, but we’ve faced that before this year and at different times, so I’d say at least we’re adjusted to it a little bit. We still have confidence that we can go out and win games."
Brady said he has confidence in both Hoomanawanui and Mulligan to contribute to the offense when called upon.
"They’ve been able to contribute [in] the role that they’ve been in that we’ve asked them to do," he said. "I think now the role’s going to be more. You’re going to play more, because Gronk’s not in there, so someone’s got to be in there. That will fall on the backs, that will fall on the tight ends, that will fall on the receivers, anyone who’s got an opportunity to produce while they’re out on the field. If you’re an eligible receiver, then you’ve got to do something with it, so we either run it better or throw it better or catch it better or run with it after the catch. It’s not going to be an excuse for us, I know that."
Similarly, Mulligan explained the team's tight ends are ready for whatever job they're asked to do. He knows that just because Gronkowski is injured doesn't mean the Patriots offense will be ridding itself of the tight end position.
"Rob's incredible," Mulligan said. "He's a great guy. He's a great athlete. But at the same time, we've already dealt with a lot of adversity like this. We've lost a lot of great players so we're not going to put our heads down and stick our tail between our legs and say, 'Oh my goodness we can't replace him. We can't do this. We can't do that.' What we can do is take care of our own job, and do what we do well and continue to play well, and that's what we've done already."