Physically, Rob Gronkowski met his match in Washington Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.
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Only a couple of inches and pounds separated the two, at least before Gronkowski broke free of Kerrigan’s grasp in the third quarter en route to a 37-yard TD — the second of two record-setting touchdowns for the New England Patriots tight end in a 34-27 victory at FedEX Field on Sunday.
“Whoever is covering me, I have to figure out a game plan to get open,” Gronkowski said. “If it’s a guy just as big as me, I have to figure out a way. If a guy is faster than me, I have to use my body or something. Whatever it is, I have to do my job to get open.”
Gronkowski, a second-year player out of the University of Arizona, did so often and again was one of quarterback Tom Brady’s biggest targets. Gronkowski finished with a game-high 160 yards receiving, while Brady threw for 357 yards.
“Gronk” set the single-season record for TD catches by a tight end in the first quarter with his 14th on an 11-yard reception, eclipsing the mark held by both Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis.
The Pats’ top three plays from scrimmage were all Brady-to-Gronkowski connections, including a 49-yard reception that set up his first TD, where Gronkowski picked himself off the turf, tiptoed down the sideline, dodged some would-be tacklers before he was brought down on the ‘Skins 11.
“He’s got it all in terms of being a tight end,” said Kerrigan, who was flagged for holding Gronkowski on the third-quarter TD. “He’s strong. He can run after the catch. He’s fast. He can do it all. He’s what you want in a tight end.”
Gronkowski could be the league’s best tight end at this point. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he has all the tools to succeed at a position that has evolved in recent years, starting with Tony Gonzalez and then Gates.
Making contributions to the offense takes precedence over blocking — especially as New England that lacks depth (and height) at receiver — so players such as Gronkowski, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley are often No. 1 options coming out of a huddle. (Washington’s Fred Davis should be on that list, but he served the first game of a four-game ban on Sunday for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.)
“He’s very dependable and consistent,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “He’s really been doing that all season. He needs to continue to do it. Obviously, it was a close game today and every play he did help us won.”
Gronkowski said he saw man-to-man coverage about 75 percent of the time on Sunday, a matchup he wins more often than not when he goes up against either a defensive back or linebacker. Brady targeted him 10 times on the day.
Brady said he tried to get the ball over Gronkowski and over to receiver Tiquan Underwood in the back of the end zone, a pass that was picked off by Washington cornerback Josh Wilson.
“That’s what I deserved,” Brady said of the verbal tiff that was eventually broken up by Pats head coach Bill Belichick. “You make bad plays and you’re supposed to get yelled at by your coaches. It’s certainly not the first time and I don’t think it’ll be the last.”
The Redskins weren’t able to capitalize, as Rex Grossman threw a pick of his own as time ticked down in the game, allowing the Pats to run their record to 10-3.
As for Gronkowski’s record, he celebrated extending the TD mark with the third-quarter score by leaping into the end zone.
“I just did it on the spot,” said Gronkowski, who has 16 TDs this season, including a rushing score. “I never thought about it before. I saw a guy in a New England jersey in the front row. You have to give him some props and some publicity. He’s in the front row at an away game with a New England jersey on.”
Just as Brady has this season, even more of those New England fans will be targeting Gronkowski jerseys in sporting goods stores around the greater Boston area.