Tight end Gronkowski makes a difference on offense for Patriots

| Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 11:11 p.m.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots are a different team with a healthy Rob Gronkowski. In this game more than perhaps any other this season, the Patriots needed a Gronk-like performance from their big tight end, and he delivered.

Gronkowski had a career-high nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown in his best showing since returning from an injured forearm three weeks ago.

“When we're clicking, it's awesome,” Gronkowski said after Sunday's 55-31 victory over the Steelers. “We've just got to keep working hard, keep improving and keep doing things like that. Overall, together as an offense, it was a great team win. It felt good getting more games under me, and I'm feeling good. I'm getting better every week.”

His presence helps open things for everyone around him. Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns, and the Patriots became just the third team in NFL history to have three receivers go over 120 yards with a touchdown catch.

Aaron Dobson (130) and Danny Amendola (122) were the others. Stevan Ridley ran for 115 yards and two scores.

“When he's healthy and on the field, he's tough to stop,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “He's a great run blocker, and what he does for us in the passing game, it's tough to match up. And if the attention goes to Gronk with extra coverage, it opens it up for all the other guys.”

Not coincidentally, the Patriots' fortunes in the red zone have improved, as well. In six games without Gronkowski, the Patriots scored just nine touchdowns in 22 trips inside the red zone. In the three games since his return, New England has scored eight times in 13 red-zone trips.

“Everybody tries to double-team him and do a lot of things to take him out of the game, so it's on a lot of other guys to get the job done,” Amendola said. “I felt like offensively we did some things to get the team moving, so it was a good day.”

Gronkowski, a Woodland Hills graduate, entered the game with just 10 catches for 141 yards for the season but showed early signs that he might be back to his old self. He caught four passes on the Patriots' second possession, three of which resulted in first downs.

On the Patriots' second scoring drive, Gronkowski got into the end zone for the first time since his return, fighting off double coverage and a big hit by safety Troy Polamalu.

When asked if this was the best he felt since coming back to the lineup, Gronkowski said, “I mean, yes. You saw it out there.

“It was clicking a little bit ... and I definitely can keep on improving.”

Bruce Lerch is a freelance writer.

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