FOXBORO — It was third down deep in Houston territory when quarterback Tom Brady took three steps back after a shotgun snap, looked left and calmly cut loose with a dart three minutes into the season opener last Sunday.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who lined up wide left, had hit fifth gear when he looked back, saw the ball was behind him and deftly spun his 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame to his right at about the 4-yard line.
Gronkowski hauled the ball in, finished a 360 and bowled past linebacker Zach Cunningham and safety Kareem Jackson to complete the 21-yard touchdown play. He celebrated with a nimble-toed dance capped by his classic strong-armed spike.
On the Patriots’ sixth offensive play of the season, Gronkowski had made a reception that was so remarkable it would be the highlight of the year for just about any pass catcher in the league. But it was the norm for the four-time, first-team All-Pro.
“He’s made a lot of catches like that that we’ve seen in the game,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s probably made more of those in practice.”
There was more to come.
With time winding down in the first half, Gronkowski ran down the seam and split a pair of Texan defenders to make a diving 28-yard reception.
There was some question as to whether it was actually a catch, but the fact Gronkowski was able to pull the ball in while being jarred and jostled was undeniably amazing.
“I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, ‘What is Tom thinking?’” Gronkowski said.
What Brady was thinking was there was a high rate of probability Gronkowski would make the catch no matter the degree of difficulty. Because, well, that’s what the Arizona alum has done on 65.9 percent of the passes delivered his way since the Patriots drafted him in the second round in 2010.
That’s an excellent catch percentage for any deep-ball receiver — Gronkowski’s career average of 15.2 yards per catch ranks second all-time among tight ends — and especially one who is consistently double teamed.
“It’s trust, it’s dependability and then it’s ability to execute under pressure when it matters the most,” Brady said of his working relationship with Gronkowski.
Those traits have been honed before, during and after practice during the nine seasons Brady and Gronkowski have been teammates. And their experience together allows them to fluidly make in-game adjustments.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels noted the coaches try to simulate game conditions during practice, whacking pass catchers arms as they reach for the football to “build up those fundamentals” when they’re needed in games. So Gronkowski has that going for him, too.
Having freakish physical tools doesn’t hurt either.
Gronkowski presents a matchup conundrum for opposing defenses. His size and strength advantage against cornerbacks and safeties repeatedly allows him to overpower DBs and he’s typically faster than most linebackers he’ll face.
“I mean, how do you match up with him?” Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone asked. “How do you defend him? You’ve seen it throughout the years, whether you put two guys on him, he still goes up and makes the play.”
Marrone hopes to have the answers to those questions when the Jaguars and Patriots meet at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in a rematch of the 2017 AFC Championship.
The Jaguars solved the problem in the last meeting when safety Barry Church knocked Gronkowski out of the game with a concussion on a high hit that drew a penalty for unnecessary roughness late in the first half.
Their approach Sunday will presumably adhere to NFL rules.
The Jags’ leading options include going the conventional route and defending Gronkowski with linebacker Myles Jack, who is 6-1, 244 and fast, or taking an unorthodox approach and turn to All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, he of the “I don’t think Gronk’s as great as people think he is” comment.
No matter who it is, they’re sure to have safety help.
Other than having a bigger mouth, Ramsey would be giving away 5 inches and 60 pounds to Gronkowski. But, according to Ramsey, Gronkowski’s catch percentage plummets to 56 when he’s matched up against an elite corner.
“I mean, I don’t really go into statistics like that,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve just got to play ball. That’s basically all.”
Play ball in another game that, like the 103 before him, stands a very good chance of seeing Gronk make a remarkable reception.