New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is likely to be cleared for Sunday’s game after missing the first five weeks of the season, according to multiple reports.
Gronkowski, who is recovering from multiple back and forearm injuries, has not played this season. He would be making his season debut against the undefeated New Orleans Saints.
Gronkowski, 24, underwent surgery June 18 to correct a spinal issue that nagged him last season. He has has 187 catches for 2,663 yards and 38 touchdowns in three seasons.
The Patriots’ offense has struggled this season, ranking 21st in the NFL in passing. Tom Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass last Sunday for the first time since 2010 — ending his streak at 52 straight games — as the Patriots lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 13-6.
Struggling has not be the norm for the Patriots offense at almost any point in Brady’s run leading the New England offense.
But for 2013, offensive struggles have become all too familiar to Brady and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Up until Sunday afternoon, a much improved defense and questionable competition helped to keep the Patriots among the NFL’s undefeated. That came to a screeching halt, though, in the loss in Cincinnati that left the Patriots with a 4-1 record.
Playing a fifth straight game to open the season without injured Gronkowski, New England had its lowest scoring output since being shut out in Miami in 2006. Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the second time this season and finished with a season-worst 52.2 passer rating.
The return of Danny Amendola from a groin injury did little to help, as the receiver caught just four of the nine balls Brady threw his way. Julian Edelman, who had been tied for the NFL lead in receptions heading into the game, and Brady’s most consistent target through the first month, caught just two of the seven balls tossed in his direction.
New England went an atrocious one of 12 on third-down conversions against the Bengals, in part because eight of those were third-and-longs with seven yards to gain or longer. The Patriots punted on each of their first four possessions of the day and didn’t get into the Bengals red zone until midway through the fourth quarter. Only one of New England’s 12 possessions on the day resulted in a drive of longer than 35 yards.
A struggling Patriots offense found new ways to bottom out at Paul Brown Stadium, just a week after it put forth by far its best performance of the season in a 30-23 Sunday night win in Atlanta.
“We just didn’t overall offensively perform to the level that we did last week or that we’re capable of doing,” coach Bill Belichick said after breaking down the film of the loss. “I think everybody is accountable for that: the coaching staff, the players, again, I certainly give Cincinnati credit there. They have a good defensive front and they played well but we have to do a better job than that. We put ourselves in too many long-yardage situations. We couldn’t convert in the red area and had some consistency running the ball but not nearly enough in the passing game, and not in any critical situations. We have to do better in all those areas.”
Brady pointed to a pretty serious lack of execution for an offense that gave up an 8-yard sack on the second snap of the day, allowed four sacks total and never found any degree of rhythm.
“You can’t expect to kick two field goals and win many games in the NFL,” Brady said. “We can do a better job than that, and we are going to have to if we want to win these games. We had too many silly execution errors and mental mistakes today. It is hard to drive the ball down the field if you keep making those mistakes.”
Edelman pointed to the Bengals’ physical and timely defense.
“They flat out just beat us. Sometimes you have to tip your hat,” said. “We have no excuses.”
And no time to feel sorry for themselves. Drew Brees and the undefeated Saints head to Foxborough on Sunday. That means a huge challenge for a New England defense that’s been more than holding up its end of the bargain for the first month-plus of the season.
“The defense played great, as they have all year, and I think we really let them down,” guard Logan Mankins said of Sunday’s loss.
Maybe things will change with Gronkowski back on the field. Maybe Amendola will play his way into full health.
Maybe. Until then, Brady and Co. know they have to produce better than they did on Sunday if the winning ways are to continue in New England, especially against top competition like New Orleans.
“Hopefully when some guys get healthy, that will give us a little margin of error because we’ll have some real physical mismatches out there,” Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI in Boston. “But until that happens we’re going to have to continue to do what we can to grind it out.”
NOTEBOOK: Punter Ryan Allen, an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech who beat out incumbent Zoltan Mesko in training camp, has gotten a lot of work early in his rookie season. That continued with eight punts in the loss on Sunday. For the most part, Allen has made the most of his chances, including five kicks downed inside the 20 in the losing effort, four straight inside the 10. “I thought our punt team overall gave us good field position, really all day,” Belichick said of his rookie. “The plus-50 punting was good. Then a couple times we were backed up, we had good coverage there as well. The punting game and the field position on that end of it was good.”