We've pointed out that the loss of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski cuts the team's red zone efficiency nearly in half. We also know that there's no All Pro tight end about to show up on the roster and help replace Gronk's production.
The fall out of Gronk is evident as the production of the entire team falls off a steep hill.
With Gronk: 16/24 (67%), 163 yards (6.79 YPA), 8 TDs, 1 INT; 41 carries, 125 yards (3.05 YPC), 11 TDs, 1 FMB
Without Gronk: 23/50 (46%), 169 yards (3.38 YPA), 10 TDs, 2 INTs; 41 carries, 95 yards (2.32 YPC), 3 TDs, 1 FMB
What's shocking is that the Patriots have opted to throw the ball in the zone over twice as much when they don't have Gronk on the field. Gronk forces defenses to play a few steps backs and opens up lanes for running backs, which the Patriots are all too happy to take. No Gronk and linebackers are able to congest the middle of the field, attack the run game, and prevent the shallow crossing patterns that the Patriots thrive on.
So what can the Patriots do? They would love to run the ball in the red zone more often, because that would mean that there's a talent that is drawing defenders off of the line. Who are the candidates for that role?
Looking at the players who've seen the most red zone targets with Gronk not on the field, we can see why the Patriots struggled against the Dolphins (Brady went 2 for 11):
Julian Edelman: 13 targets, 9 completions (69.2%)
Kenbrell Thompkins: 10 targets, 5 completions (50.0%)
Aaron Dobson: 6 targets, 2 completions (33.3%)
Shane Vereen: 6 targets, 2 completions (33.3%)
Danny Amendola: 5 targets, 2 completions (40.0%)
Michael Hoomanawanui: 3 targets, 1 completion (33.3%)
Josh Boyce: 2 targets, 0 completions (0.0%)
The Patriots were missing the two of their top three red zone targets. The players they were left with were ones who thrive on schemed open space, not those who could beat press coverage. Edelman can win most battles, but if defenses spend their resources on stopping him (and they should), who are the Patriots left with? Vereen, Amendola, and Hooman. None of which pose a huge threat in breaking free, especially with Vereen needing more time for his routes to develop and Amendola still nursing a groin that takes away some of his suddenness.
The Patriots should hope that Thompkins and Dobson return next week against the Ravens because they are the team's best hope at beating man coverage. They also represent the best chance of forcing defenses to stay out of the middle of the field, opening up lanes for shallow crossers.
This season unfairly rests upon the shoulders of two injured rookies. I can't think of a scenario that better epitomizes the 2013 Patriots.