Small role for this big target

Gronkowski only thrown to 3 times

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 6, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Rob Gronkowski insisted that his sprained left ankle was fine last night despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. He patiently repeated that he was “100 percent’’ and “good to go’’ several times when asked whether the injury limited him.

But Gronkowski was all but invisible in the Super Bowl, catching two passes for the Patriots in a 21-17 loss against the Giants.

Gronkowski, who suffered the high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore two weeks ago, was slow getting off the ball and did not have his usual ability to make cuts and lose defenders.

One of the best athletes on the team was more of a plodder on this night.

Gronkowski caught 15 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s first two playoff games. With Gronkowski unable to do much, the Patriots matched their season low for points.

“It was a tough night for the offense,’’ wide receiver Deion Branch said. “We had it clicking a few times but not for the majority of the game.’’

Gronkowski wore a cleat with extra support and played with his ankle heavily taped. The coaches and medical staff closely monitored him throughout pregame warmups. He was on the field to start the game and played all but a handful of snaps in the first half.

“It was fine,’’ Gronkowski said. “I wasn’t limited. I was in no pain at all.’’

But quarterback Tom Brady marveled at the idea of Gronkowski being on the field at all.

“He played his butt off,’’ Brady said. “He fought. It was hard to believe he could play the game the way he was feeling. He toughed it out. He was great for us all season.’’

The Giants used a cover-two zone to help account for Gronkowski, whose 17 touchdown receptions during the regular season were the most for a tight end in NFL history. But his lack of production was primarily the result of Brady looking elsewhere, as Gronkowski was targeted only three times.

Gronkowski caught a 20-yard pass late in the second period, part of a 96-yard touchdown drive that gave the Patriots a 10-9 lead at halftime.

Brady did not look to Gronkowski again until the second play of the fourth quarter, when he went deep down the left side. But linebacker Chase Blackburn sealed Gronkowski out of the play and made the interception.

“He just made a good play,’’ Gronkowski said. “He boxed me out pretty well. He went up for the ball and made a pretty good play there.’’

Said Blackburn: “I just tried to stay in front of him. He’s pretty big, but I had the position.’’

Gronkowski then caught a 6-yard pass with 6:05 left in the game. That was the extent of his production. Not since Oct. 2 at Oakland, when he caught one pass for 15 yards, did Gronkowski have such a small role in the offense.

“It was just how they defended me,’’ said Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 101 yards and a TD against the Giants during the regular season. “They have a good defense and they played well. Tom hits the open man, he finds the open men. He was hitting whoever was open.’’

Coach Bill Belichick said Gronkowski “competed pretty well’’ in the game.

But Gronkowski was not on the field for the first seven plays of the final drive of the game as the Patriots desperately tried to rally. He returned with five seconds left and the ball on the New England 49-yard line.

With the Patriots needing a miracle, Gronkowski raced to the end zone and was in position to catch a pass tipped by teammate Aaron Hernandez. But he was two steps away as the ball fell to the turf, marking the end of the season and the second Super Bowl loss in four years against the Giants.

“It was a jump ball play,’’ Gronkowski said. “Aaron did a good job tipping the ball and deflecting it. We almost had it. But almost isn’t enough. It was close.

“I felt like I was close. But close doesn’t mean anything. Close isn’t there. It doesn’t really matter how close I was because it didn’t happen.’’

Gronkowski said he would continue to get treatment on his ankle but denied he needed surgery. For now, a more pressing issue was dealing with the disappointment of getting to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career and coming away a loser.

“We didn’t do enough,’’ he said. “We didn’t get the job done. That’s all that matters.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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