New England already had the most dynamic tight end in football – perhaps ever – in All-Pro Rob Gronkowski when it traded for Martellus Bennett during the offseason. Talented (he made the Pro Bowl in 2014) but mercurial, Bennett was immediately seen as the ideal complement to Gronkowski. Expectations skyrocketed for what the Patriots could do offensively with such a tight end duo.
While Gronkowski has been slow to recover from a mid-August hamstring injury, Bennett has fully lived up to his offseason billing. As spectators witnessed in Cleveland last weekend – Gronk's 100-plus receiving yards and Bennett's three TD catches – when both men are at, or at least near, full-strength, their combination is lethal.
"These two players really complement each other well," head coach Bill Belichick remarked in his patriots.com film breakdown segment this week. "They both can do a lot of the same things. It's hard to [defend] one of them. It's really hard to get both of them."
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels elaborated this week on the difficulties opposing defenses have in guarding New England's pair of premier tight ends.
"Some teams choose to treat them and defend them more as receivers. Some teams are concerned about the running game and the impact they can make in the running game. There are some teams that try to do a mixture of both. When you have people that can do more than one thing on the field, sometimes defenses have to make decisions about how they want to defend them. Our players have to be ready for either one.
"We've seen both approaches so far this year," McDaniels added, "and we're going to have to prepare for each over the course of the week because we're not 100 percent sure how each team is going to try to attack us. I game plan for us and our guys do a good job of studying and being ready for either one depending on how we get played on any given Sunday."
"Martellus has been so productive, being here for such a short time," quarterback Tom Brady noted. "Gronk, what he did last week and him kind of getting back to where he wants to be, is such a big part of our offense because those guys are so dynamic. They're tough matchups, they're both 6-foot-6-plus, 270-pounds-plus. They're hard matchups for anybody because they're just very unique players.
Bennett's second touchdown against the Browns – a slant along the goal line – was direct result of Cleveland's defense not having enough players to defend both options, as Brady described.
"[The Browns] focused all their coverage on Gronk, and then Martellus gets the one-on-one and he gets the ball. Again, that's what makes a good offense. If they're going to double cover someone, it means other guys have single coverage. If you're playing with a guy like Gronk, it's great for you because you're not the one getting double covered, so you'll have opportunities and you have to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them."
Perhaps even more impressive? That two supremely talented players at the same position on the same team are not only producing on the field, but getting along famously off it.
Gronkowski recounted his first encounter with Bennett just days before the Patriots acquired Bennett earlier this year. The two happened to be working out at the same gym.
"I saw this big dude working out and I didn't even know it was him," Gronkowski began. "I knew who Martellus was, and everything, but I didn't recognize him at the moment. I was like, 'Man, that dude is huge.' I went up to him and talked to him and boom, the next few days he was on our team. I was like, 'Dang, we were just talking about how cool it would be, it would be great to work with him.' We were just BS-ing around about how we could help each other out and feed off each other, and it happened."
Bennett smiled when Gronk's version of the story was relayed to him.
"[Gronk] was like 'Is that all sweat? I thought I was the only other guy to sweat like that?' And I was like, 'You're not the only other tight end who's working, bro.' But same thing, I saw him and was like, 'Man, this kid is huge! He's just like me.' It was just funny, we hit it off from that day and told jokes and laughed."
Yesterday and today
Revisiting the Bengals' visit to Foxborough two seasons ago has been a recurring theme this week at Gillette Stadium. While both teams have undergone changes, their continuity is one of the reasons for their sustained success – even if Cincy's current 2-3 record doesn't reflect that.
"They're very talented," Brady emphasized, "and there are a lot of guys that were on that team in 2014 that are still there. Coach [Belichick] talked a lot about their continuity, their organization. Certainly with the players they've kept and committed to, they run a great scheme. They're very disciplined, they play hard, and they're going to give us everything they've got.
"At the end of the day we played good [against the Bengals in 2014]. That's what matters most: our ability to focus on that particular team, game and opponent. That's what we did a great job of that week, and that's what we're going to have to do this week, too."
"I'm going to piggyback off what he said," echoed wide receiver Julian Edelman Thursday, "and say how we were able to focus a lot that week. Right now, it's about the preparation process, going out and having a good week of practice. We have a few more days to take advantage of. Hopefully, we do that. Usually, the team that prepares the best is the one that comes out on top. They're a really good football team. Don't let their record fool you. They've won a lot of games these last few years. We're going to have to execute [this Sunday]."
Turns out, guard Shaq Mason's absence from Wednesday's practice was not injury-related, and he was back on the field Thursday.
However, tight end Greg Scruggs was not, after suffering a knee injury in Wednesday's session. Running back Brandon Bolden (left knee) and linebacker Jonathan Freeny (shoulder) continue to be held out of action.