For nearly a decade, Rob Gronkowski has been an unreckonable force.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end has rolled off four 1,000-yard seasons, four First-Team All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowl appearances as a revolutionary tight end with uncanny size, strength and hands.
Like the rest of the New England Patriots dynasty, Gronkowski’s longevity has defied conventional thinking. He has continually fought off signs of decline to remain one of Tom Brady’s most dangerous weapons.
Amidst an average season in which Gronkowski has seemed mortal while combating a pair of nagging injuries, the Vikings face him at a time when whispers of his decline are again swirling.
But as history shows, Gronkowski has bounced back numerous times from adverse stretches. He’ll be one of the many threats to the Vikings defense on Sunday.
“He’s so big and physical, uses his body really well,” said Zimmer. “He’s really good on the 50-50s. I think when he’s outside like a wide receiver he goes up and gets the ball. There’s guys that are faster than him, but he does a great job of catching the ball, and he’s a pretty good blocker, too.”
Like the rest of the New England Patriots dynasty, Gronkowski’s longevity has defied conventional thinking.
Gronkowski missed three of four games with ankle and back injuries leading up to the Patriots’ Week 11 bye. He returned against the New York Jets and made three catches for 56 yards and a contested-catch touchdown against Jets corner Morris Claiborne.
No tight end has more touchdowns since 2010 than “Gronk.” He’s one of only three with more than 50. Antonio Gates has 57 in 122 games, Jimmy Graham has 71 in 132 games, and Gronkowski has 78 in just 110 games.
Injuries might be the only thing that’s prevented Gronkowski from notching seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He missed five or more games in 2012, 2013 and 2016 but was on a 16-game pace for 1,000 yards in all three.
After missing half of the 2016 campaign, he responded with 1,084 yards in 2017. Gronkowski finished the season as Pro Football Focus‘ top tight end, leading all tight ends in first down receptions with 56. His 127.3 quarterback rating when targeted was sixth-best amongst tight ends with 30 or more targets. And he caught nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Now in his ninth season, Gronkowski is still an effective safety net for Brady with 22 first-down catches, good for 12th in the NFL, and a 15.8 yards per reception average.
“One of the difficult things is just his catch radius,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “If it gets around him, he’s a big, long-armed tight end that’s got a good vertical, good speed. Our work will be cut out for us going up and trying to compete for the ball with him down the field.”
The Vikings struggled against tight ends early in the season, allowing them 15 receptions, 233 yards and a touchdown in the season’s first three games. After several defensive tweaks following a 1-2-1 start, Minnesota has improved across the board defensively, especially against tight ends. Over the last four games, they’ve allowed 10 catches, 94 yards and no touchdowns to the position.
Safety Anthony Harris attributes some of the work to the defense complementing itself in pass rush and coverage.
“Linebackers got to do a good job of covering, allowing the defensive line enough time to get to the quarterback,” said Harris, “and as a defensive lineman they’ve got to do a good job of trying to win their battles and put pressure on the quarterback so they don’t have to cover as long.”
With as many playmakers as the Patriots have offensively — Sony Michel, James White, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, et al — the Vikings can’t afford to overlook Gronkowski, who doesn’t need volume to make an impact. As Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph laid out, he’ll do the little things other tight ends won’t.
“Rob’s a guy that is the old-school tight end,” said Rudolph. “He is called upon in the run game and pass protection. He’s also a great receiver. Rob is a guy that’s not just out there in situational football, not doing the dirty work, just running around and catching balls. I have a lot of respect for Rob and his game.”