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FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots play Game 2 of Life without Gronk on Sunday, with tight end Rob Gronkowski declared out against the Dolphins thanks to the broken arm he suffered against the Colts Nov. 18.
The offense needs more than one player to fill the roles of the All-Pro.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Aaron Hernandez came back for the Thanksgiving night win over the Jets. Although Hernandez isn’t the blocker Gronkowski is, he certainly gives Tom Brady a trusted option in the passing game.
But the Patriots’ roster is stocked with tight ends, and Gronkowski’s absence has provided veterans Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe an opportunity to play bigger roles. Michael Hoomanawanui also has contributed, asked mostly to block.
After spending last year with the Broncos, Fells signed a three-year free agent deal with the Patriots in March, with Shiancoe signing just before training camp opened in July.
Both players were hampered by injuries, with Fells missing much of training camp, and Shiancoe starting the regular season on injured reserve.
For the moment, it looks as though Fells has a bigger chance of making an impact: He played a season-high 57 snaps against the Jets, with a 24-yard reception that was part of a second-half touchdown drive.
Shiancoe was in for 11 snaps but has not recorded a reception in three games.
“It’s one of those situations, you never wish for anyone to get hurt, but at the same time you have to make the most of your opportunity no matter how it comes and you have to make sure that you’re prepared for it,” Fells said this week.
Brady was complimentary of both Fells and Shiancoe.
“They’re both veteran players who have played a lot of games, so they know what to do, they know how to do it, so you have a lot of confidence in those guys when they’re out there,” Brady said. “It’s just a matter of them understanding what their role is and going out there and doing a good job, which they’ve both done well.”
As he says about most players, coach Bill Belichick wants the pair to be ready.
“Dan played a little more last week against the Jets; I thought he did some good things. ‘Hooman’ has played his role fairly consistently through a few games now. ‘Shanc’ played, has spotted [Hoomanawanui] a little bit.
“As we all know, that could change from week to week, depending on the game plan and scheme. So expectations would be that they’re prepared, they’re ready to go, and when they get the opportunity they’ll go in there and perform well.”
Both Fells and Shiancoe said the Patriots’ offense is quite different than ones they’ve played in before. As a member of the Broncos last year, Fells was part of the Tim Tebow Experience, with things tailored to Tebow’s, shall we say, strengths.
Asked how things differ with the Patriots, Fells sighed, likely because of the strange atmosphere that came with having Tebow as a teammate.
“It’s a little bit more expansive. There’s a lot more going on here than what I was used to last year,” he said. “I think that’s good, though. It keeps me thinking, it keeps me on my toes, and it always keeps me learning something new about the game and I definitely appreciate that and love that.
“Every aspect of our offense we’re asked to do different things that I haven’t necessarily been asked to do before, but I welcome that. Me and everyone else in the [tight ends] room, we’re versatile guys, so the more that you can ask us to do, the more we’ll take on.”
Shiancoe could learn the playbook while he was getting healthy, but not being on the field for the first part of the season meant he missed out on valuable practice time. He said he’s still learning an offense that’s more “in-depth” than the ones he played in with the Giants (2003-06) and Vikings (2007-11).
Everyone has to be working together, or it might not work at all.
“It’s like a machine,” Shiancoe said. “One bolt can’t be loose. Gotta make sure your bolts are tight and make sure all the gears are grinding in synch, and if you’re one of those bolts or gears you better make sure you’re in synch with the rest because it’s a fine-tuned machine.”