Going against Gronk can hurt
How do you stop New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski?
He is too big for most cornerbacks and safeties and too fast for most linebackers.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said the only way to tackle him is to go low, much to the dismay of Patriots fans who have seen Gronkowski suffer two knee injuries because of low hits by Denver safeties in the past two years.
Bradley Roby, another Denver cornerback, said his Gronkowski strategy is to “wrap him up and don’t let go.”
“I don’t think it’s ever been taught before to tackle a guy who is 6-8, 300 pounds,” said all-pro outside linebacker Von Miller.
OK, maybe Miller exaggerated a bit. Gronkowski is listed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds.
Tackling him is one problem, covering him is another. Most teams struggle at both.
With wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola healthy again, New England will be able to run its usual offense Sunday in the AFC championship game instead of the two-tight end formations it used in the first meeting against the Broncos this season.
Denver plays a lot of man-to-man coverage on defense, but it’s rare for one player to slow Gronkowski. In the teams’ Nov. 29 matchup, the Broncos sent a variety of guys his way, but safety David Bruton received the bulk of the snaps against him.
Bruton won’t play in the rematch because of a season-ending broken leg. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Bruton did “a decent job” on Gronkowski, but the New England star still had six catches for 88 yards and one touchdown.
“Total package,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said of Gronkowski. “Best tight end I’ve ever seen play the game. It’s definitely going to be tough covering him anytime he splits out wide.”
That’s where Gronkowski caused the most problems Nov. 29. On the Patriots’ first drive, Gronkowski split wide left with three receivers lined up on the right side. Denver safety Darian Stewart lined up across from Gronkowski, 10 yards away.
Tom Brady looked toward Gronkowski before the snap. He threw an 8-yard pass to Gronkowski, who quickly eluded Stewart’s attempted tackle and bounced off safety T.J. Ward for the game’s first touchdown.
Another favorite route of the Patriots is the back-shoulder fade in the red zone, which is nearly impossible to stop if Brady is on target. Gronkowski shows off his basketball-like, box-out skills and usually brings the ball to his body. As he turns, the ball is on its way.
“That’s a problem for everybody, obviously. You’d like to double-cover everybody they have, but you can’t do it all the time,” Phillips said. “They split him out a lot. That gives you problems because of his size. When he’s inside, you can jam him a little bit more.”
Teams that have had success against Gronkowski have done it by being physical and using bigger defenders.
Only two teams, Buffalo and Miami, held Gronkowski to two catches and fewer than 40 yards this season. Both did so in their second meeting with the Patriots after struggling against him the first time.
The Broncos could assign Talib, Stewart or Ward to Gronkowski or use a combination of the three Sunday. Look for inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan to chip, hit and shadow Gronkowski anytime he roams over the middle. When he is split wide, the Broncos probably will have a safety shaded to his side.
Maybe more important than the coverage will be the tackling. And, yes, that means the Broncos won’t shy away from hitting Gronkowski in the knees, something he is prepared to face.
“I’ve just got to get low, get my shoulder down, protect the ball, just protect myself in any way,” said Gronkowksi, who ranks third in NFL history for touchdown receptions by a tight end despite being in only his sixth season. “It’s football, so you’ve got to be ready for contact at all times.”
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, is Tom Brady’s favorite target.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tends to attract a crowd, and on this play Nov. 29 in snowy Denver it was Broncos safety David Bruton trying to bring him down with safety Omar Bolden offering assistance nearby.