ALAMEDA – The Raiders, like every other team, use scout teams designed to preview the next opponent and looks they might give. Practice-squaders often don the jersey of certain stars, skill players especially, while imitating key threats.
Someone might wear New England’s No. 87 this week, but there’s no replicating Rob Gronkowski. The dude stands 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He’s built like an ox, with a badger’s on-field disposition.
“There’s nobody really, not with his size and the way he can block and run,” rookie defensive back Obi Melifonwu said. “It’s hard, but you have to do what you have to do.”
The Raiders haven’t done well with tight ends. That position has notoriously plagued them in years past, especially the good ones. Gronkowksi’s the absolute best when healthy.
Tight ends have 45 receptions for 492 yards and four touchdowns against this years Raiders, with Tennessee’s Delanie Walker, Washington’s Vernon Davis L.A. Chargers’ Hunter Henry and Miami’s Julius Thomas causing the biggest problems.
In other words, size and receiving skill equals trouble for the Silver and Black.
Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has long been a Raider killer, but had just four catches for 33 yards and a touchdown in a victory over the Chiefs. That’s considered a good day at the office versus Kelce. They’d certainly take that Sunday against New England at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.
The Raiders beat Kelce up pretty good in Week 7, with linebacker Bruce Irvin chipping him wherever possible. It’s less about knocking him down than rhythm and timing disruption. That tactic could be employed again, especially with emphasis being placed on avoiding explosive plays to speedster Brandin Cooks.
Slowing Gronkowski isn’t easy. Few, if any, do it well. Gronkowski has 60 catches for 583 yards and five touchdowns. He’s second in the league with 2.16 yards per route run, and has 15.3 yards per reception. The University of Arizona alum’s also an excellent run blocker, providing the versatility to trap a defense in sub personnel and run physical or pass deep with him against a defensive back.
He’s a matchup nightmare, a tag liberally applied to tight ends that fits perfectly in this case.
This would be a great time for Melifonwu to shine. He was drafted as a Raiders tight end eraser. That was the original goal, before a knee injury cost Melifonwu the season’s first half. His role is limited somewhat – he played seven defensive snaps in his NFL debut at Miami -- though playing the Dolphins and getting two more weeks practice leaves him better prepared for some one-on-one coverage.
Melifonwu has the size and speed to keep up with Gronkowski, but none of the veteran savvy. The key, in the UConn alums mind, is not playing into Gronkowski’s hands.
“A lot of people try to out-physical him,” Melifonwu said. “You have to play to your strengths. He’s a big, physical guy with strong hands. It’s definitely going to be tough, but it’s a matchup that’s going to be fun.”