FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets are ready for Rob Gronkowski — whether he plays or not.
The New England Patriots’ tight end was cleared by his doctors Friday to make his season debut today, according to agent Drew Rosenhaus. Jets coach Rex Ryan wasn’t taking any chances in his team’s preparations this week.
“Like we said from Day 1, I assumed he’d play,” Ryan said. “I’m assuming (Tom) Brady will play. But that’s how much we assumed this guy was going to play. I don’t know if they were saving him for us or whatever, but I had a funny feeling he was going to play.”
Gronkowski missed the first six games after offseason surgery on his back and broken left forearm, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick would neither confirm nor deny Gronkowski would play. The team’s injury report listed him as questionable for the game.
That means, as far as the Jets know, the Patriots will make a game-time decision on Gronkowski. New York missed him in the teams’ first meeting in Week 2, a 13-10 win for New England, although the tight end has practiced every week during the season.
“After that first game,” Ryan said, “I felt for sure he’d play against us the second game.”
Ryan and his players insisted that New York would not need to alter its game plan one way or the other.
“They have capable guys, but that just adds another weapon for Brady,” safety Dawan Landry said. “But, we’re ready.”
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski provides problems for most defenses, who have to decide how to go against him — use a safety or a speedy linebacker, or sometimes, both.
“He’s a good player,” cornerback Kyle Wilson said. “I don’t know about matchup issues. It just comes down to making the play or not.”
In six career games against the Jets, including one in the playoffs, Gronkowski has 24 catches for 313 yards and four touchdowns. So, New York knows exactly what kind of effect he can have.
“He’s a big vertical threat in the red zone and Brady looks for him,” Landry said. “This week is going to be no different.”
Gronkowski caught six passes for 78 yards and two scores the last time he played against the Jets in the teams’ first meeting last season.
“I think you’d have to ask a lot of teams the same question, like, `Oh, you couldn’t stop him in the red zone?”’ Ryan said. “Yeah, that’s true. Us and almost every other team in the league.”
Safety Antonio Allen has defended Gronkowski in the past, and Ryan could use a mix-and-match type of coverage that includes Allen and possibly Kyle Wilson as well as perhaps linebacker Demario Davis.
“He’s just another target,” Wilson said. “He’s big in certain parts of the field and certain situations. What we’ve got to do is everybody do their job. If your job is to cover him, be where you’re supposed to be and if the ball comes, just make the play.”
Sounds simple enough, right? But Gronkowski has been tough to handle during his first three seasons.
He was the first tight end in NFL history to have three straight years with 10 or more touchdown catches, and could become the fastest to 40 at his position. Gronkowski has 38 scoring catches in 43 regular-season games. The fastest tight end to 40 was San Diego’s Antonio Gates, and it took him 71 games.
The Jets can draw off their experience of playing against Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, who’s an inch shorter than Gronkowski but just as dangerous a pass-catcher. Gonzalez had 10 receptions for 97 yards two weeks ago against the Jets.
“Those guys are hard to cover,” Ryan said. “Even when you think you’ve got them covered, they’re still open just because of their size and catching radius.”
While the Jets were hush-hush on who played the role of Gronkowski on the scout team, saying only that a few people might have, Ryan acknowledged that they made sure to go over the Patriots’ offense with backup tight end Zach Sudfeld. The rookie spent training camp with New England and had a terrific preseason, prompting fans and media to call him “Baby Gronk,” and the Jets claimed him off waivers two weeks ago.
“Well, he never really remembered anything,” Ryan said, smiling. “No, I’m just kidding. You obviously pick his brain and all that kind of stuff, for sure. He’s a sharp, sharp young man, so we do our due diligence and try to get what we can out of him.”
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