FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — Rob Gronkowski looks to be in midseason form, at least when he's spiking the ball after a touchdown.
The rest of his game might take a while to get there.
The New England Patriots star tight end pounded the ball to the ground after catching Tom Brady's 6-yard pass in the season opener following knee surgery in January.
"Just a little warmup, that's all," he said of his windup and slam midway through the second quarter last Sunday. "Hopefully, some (more) come versus the Minnesota Vikings."
The Patriots visit the Vikings on Sunday, hoping to do better on the road than they did a week earlier in a 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The knee injury sidelined Gronkowski for the last five games last season, including two in the playoffs. He sat out all four preseason games while gradually increasing his workload in training camp. Then he played 38 of New England's 86 offensive snaps in Miami, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
But he caught only four of the 11 passes thrown his way for 40 yards.
"It obviously shows there's much room for improvement," Gronkowski said Thursday. "You don't want to be only catching four balls when you've got 11 thrown your way, so it starts on the practice field."
At least he avoided injuries in a career filled with them.
Gronkowski missed the 2009 season at Arizona, his junior year, following back surgery. In the 11th game of 2012, he suffered a season-ending broken left forearm while blocking on an extra point.
He had several forearm surgeries and one back operation in the offseason and sat out the first six games last year. In his seventh game back, he suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee when he was hit by Cleveland safety TJ Ward, now with Denver, after making a catch.
That hit ended his season.
Now he plays with a brace on his right knee and padding on his left arm.
"It's a precaution thing," Gronkowski said of the padding. "I'm used to it."
He's pleased with his conditioning level and would like to play more snaps as the season goes on.
"I thought it was a perfect amount, just coming back (and) getting my toes wet," he said of his 38 plays. "Whatever the coaches plan for me, keep on improving, keep on getting better, I'll be doing."
The sooner, the better.
The Patriots struggled in the second half when they were outscored by the Dolphins 23-0. Without his most reliable receiver for more than half the plays, Brady completed just 29 of 56 passes for 249 yards and one touchdown with a poor passer rating of 69.7.
"It was good to have Rob out there. He did some things that certainly helped us and probably some things that he hadn't done in game action in a little while," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "It was a limited number of snaps, and I thought he tried to do his job out there as best as he could.
"Hopefully, it's just something for us to build on going forward."
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer was Cincinnati's defensive coordinator last season when the Bengals beat the Patriots 13-6. That ended Brady's streak of 52 games with a touchdown pass, two fewer than Drew Brees' NFL record.
"It was a different team, different situation," Zimmer said. "It rained like crazy the last minute of the ball game. It's completely different. Obviously, you look at the tape, but you don't think that everything is going to be the same."
For one thing, Gronkowski was sidelined for that game.
Now he's back, having shaken off some of the rust in the opener and willing to take a hit on his right knee.
"I've been playing football for so long, so right when I got back out there (the) first time I got hit, it all comes back naturally like that," Gronkowski said. "It didn't feel like anything (special). It just felt like playing football again, which was great."