Go­ing against Gronk can hurt

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Cameron Wolfe

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.”

Steve Nehf, The Den­ver Post

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, is Tom Brady’s fa­vorite tar­get.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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.

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