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Bills' coverage dilemma: Double Gronk or Bennett?

Tom Brady is throwing the ball. The temptation is to end any conversation about the effectiveness of the New England Patriots' passing game right there.

Give Brady a target, any target, and he'll find it. He'll make mediocre ones good, good ones great, and great ones stupendous.

That happened long ago with Western New York native Rob Gronkowski, whose talent -- combined with Brady's other-worldly skills -- has put him on a career path that will end with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gronk, alone, gives the Patriots the best tight end in the game and arguably the best in NFL history. He gives opposing defenses a coverage nightmare. He gives other Patriot pass-catchers room, created by the extra defensive attention he draws, to make plays.

But he isn't alone anymore.

This year, the Patriots have another tight end that opponents have nearly as much reason to fear: Martellus Bennett, whom New England acquired last March in a trade with Chicago.

Through the Patriots' 6-1 start, they have combined for 44 receptions for 742 yards and six touchdowns. And that was while Gronkowski was slowed by a hamstring injury earlier in the season, including the Bills' 16-0 victory at New England on Oct. 2.

"Yeah, he's definitely back," Rex Ryan said while preparing for Sunday's rematch at New Era Field. "And the other big dude, Bennett, is a great target, too. They've got two guys like that, so it's going to be tough."

Tough and, perhaps, impossible.

After you get beyond Brady's throwing and Gronkowski's and Bennett's catching, there is the size factor. Gronkowski is listed as 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, while Bennett is listed as 6-6 and 275 pounds. And both are exceptionally powerful, allowing them to muscle their way open and also provide solid blocking.

No NFL team has a safety or inside linebacker, the positions mainly responsible for covering tight ends, with that kind of size or strength. Worse for the Bills is that they won't have their best safety, Aaron Williams, on the field Sunday due to the head and neck injury he suffered in last weekend's loss at Miami.

"It's hard to match up with two guys who are both 275 pounds," Brady said during a conference call with media who cover the Bills. "At the end of the day, if you put someone who's 220 pounds on them, you feel like you've got a mismatch. If you feel like you put someone that's their size but not as fast as them or athletic, you feel like there's a mismatch."

Translation: Brady expects to do some serious damage with his tight ends -- just as he does in every game -- provided Bennett, who is listed as questionable with an ankle injury and did not practice Friday, is able to play.

Still, even without their top safety, the Bills maintain confidence that they'll be able to hold their own against Gronkowski and Bennett.

"It's a challenge, but I feel like we've got the players to match up with them," cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.

It will likely be a shared responsibility between safeties Corey Graham, Robert Blanton, and Jonathan Meeks, inside linebacker Zach Brown, and Gilmore and fellow corners Ronald Darby and Nickell Robey-Coleman. That, of course, takes into account that Patriot receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan require members of the secondary to guard them as well.

The Patriots make the challenge of dealing with their tight ends even more difficult by usually lining them up on opposite sides of the formation.

"You've got to respect both of them," Gilmore said. "So you can't really double both of them. You've got to double one and the other person's got to win."

Added Robey-Coleman, "It's like they're two independent contractors. Watching film, I've rarely caught them on the same side doing route combinations. They have Bennett doing certain things and they have Gronk doing certain things. They would rather have Bennett block than Gronk block. They look at Bennett as more athletic, but is super physical and can still block. And Gronk, I feel they see him as their passing tight end and go-to guy when they need a play. But you've got to play them evenly."

Their pass-catching prowess shouldn't overshadow the fact they play a significant role in the Patriots' rushing attack.

LeGarrette Blount has rushed for 566 yards and eight touchdowns. He isn't doing it behind the NFL's best offensive line -- but the blocking does get a whole lot better with Bennett and Gronkowski involved. If the Patriots are able to get half of the ground production the Dolphins got with Jay Ajayi's 214-yard game last weekend, their offense figures to be unstoppable.

And their tight ends will likely be a major factor.

"I think the great part about what they do, when we run the ball behind them, they've done a great job in the run game," Brady said. "LeGarrette's had an incredible year, so I think that's what really stresses defense, is being able to run the ball on your terms, having all the options available in the passing game and guys that are all making plays when they get the ball in their hands.

"In our offense, whoever is open gets it. And no one really knows on particular plays. It's just how the defense is playing us and what they choose to do. We always feel like we're going to find someone open if we can win our matchups. And we've got a lot of guys that have been able to win matchups, so it's been fun to see and hopefully we can keep it going this week."

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