Rob Gronkowski

Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

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Jags safety misses second practice; how will they cover Gronkowski?

FOXBORO -- For as much talent as the Jaguars trot out onto the field defensively, there's no clear-cut answer for how they'll cover Rob Gronkowski. 

"Hope they don't throw him the football," Jaguars coach Doug Marrone answered when asked how to guard the Patriots tight end. "Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I’d like to watch a game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don’t end up killing you."

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The Jaguars rank 20th in the NFL when it comes to defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, allowing 44 yards per game on six targets. Against Pittsburgh's Vance McDonald (15 targets) and Jesse James (one target) in the Divisional Round, Jacksonville was gashed for 11 receptions and 124 yards, including 107 yards after the catch. 

On paper, the Jaguars should match up better against tight ends than what they've shown. They have a pair of athletic linebackers who have the size/speed combination to run with bigger pass-catchers and contest them at the catch point. They also have a long and hard-nose corner in Jalen Ramsey, who doesn't shy away from the physicality associated with defending a tight end. 

But talk to Patriots defenders, the same ones who try to match up with Gronkowski on a daily basis, and it's not that simple. In general, linebackers just can't match the First-Team All-Pro's athleticism in the passing game. Corners, who are accustomed to playing on top of their responsibilities in coverage in order to protect against the big play, are too easily boxed-out. Even the tough ones. 

That's why safeties are so often the choice when coaches try to determine who should check Gronkowski. Patrick Chung is Gronkowski's toughest matchup on his own team. Tennessee's All-Pro Kevin Byard was competitive for a time last week, but Gronkowski (six grabs, 81 yards, one touchdown) eventually had his way with the rookie. The results were even worse for Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis back in Week 15. 

The Jaguars will throw a different look at the Patriots. Their Cover-3 scheme -- run by defensive coordinator Todd Wash, who spent two years in Seattle as the defensive line coach -- is reminiscent of what the Seahawks showed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Like the Seahawks, the Jags will "match" out of their zone at times, meaning their defenders won't necessarily be anchored to one spot on the field, dedicating themselves to one particular zone. For instance, if the Patriots place three receivers on one side of the field, Ramsey and corner AJ Bouye could end up aligning in close proximity to one another. That's how the Jaguars ensure that they have the best chance to match skill-sets with the receivers running through their zones. 

That kind of defense, though, could play right into New England's hands when it comes to Gronkowski's usage. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots went with three receivers to Tom Brady's left and lined up Gronkowski wide to the right all by himself. Seattle didn't have a corner go out on the island with the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. It was linebacker KJ Wright. Gronkowski ran right by him for a 22-yard touchdown. 

Jacksonville's linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are as athletic as any pair in the league, but if a similar situation pops up on Sunday, Brady's decision should be just as easy. 

If the Jaguars choose to match Gronkowski over the middle of the field with one of their two interchangeable safeties -- Tashaun Gipson or Barry Church -- they'll be opting to cover New England's top offensive threat with two of their weakest defenders. Plus, Gipson is dealing with a foot injury that has held him out for two practices this week. If he's at all limited, that could press second-year safety Jarrod Wilson, undrafted out of Michigan last year, into action. 

How the Patriots use Gronkowski in the AFC title game will be fascinating to watch. Will they use him as one of four vertical threats to stress Jacksonville's three deep defenders? Will they have him try to puncture the soft spots in the intermediate areas of Wash's zone scheme? Will they incorporate him in the screen game, as Jerod Mayo suggested on this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, to take advantage of an aggressive defensive front? Or will the Patriots isolate him on the outside, trusting him to win his one-on-one matchup?

If the Jaguars come up with the answer to slow down Gronkowski, without outright doubling him, they'll be the first to do so in some time. He's averaging 109 yards per game in his last five, and he has four touchdowns in that span.

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QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Andy Benoit from The MMQB gives his in-depth Titans breakdown

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QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Andy Benoit from The MMQB gives his in-depth Titans breakdown

Andy Benoit from The MMQB gives his in-depth Titans breakdown

3:50 - Dick LeBeau's defense has a variety of schemes that could give Tom Brady and the Patriots trouble. Will the entire offensive unit be up for the challenge?

12:43 - Rob Gronkowski was nearly unstoppable the last few games of the regular season. How might the Titans attempt to limit him?

15:40 - While Tom Brady is the front runner to win league MVP, he has had his share of flaws this season. Will he return to elite form vs. the Titans?

17:38 - The Titans offense has been ineffective at times this season, but they have a mobile quarterback in Marcus Mariota, a powerful back in Derrick Henry and a talented tight end in Delanie Walker. How should the Patriots approach these offensive weapons?

24:20 - Sure, the Patriots' focus is on Tennessee, but that doesn't mean we can't take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars matchup.

Titans GM played key role in rebuilding the current Pats

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Titans GM played key role in rebuilding the current Pats

FOXBORO - "This isn't college. This is the National Football League."

That's Bill Belichick's go-to line whenever he's asked about players on opposing teams who once played for the Patriots. Rather than get into a discussion as to how his experience with that player might help him in the upcoming game -- or how that player might be able to help his new team beat the Patriots -- Belichick pushes past it. 

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Happens almost every week, he insists, and he's right. 

This week it goes beyond the roster, though. The Patriots have a handful of former players on the Titans in Logan Ryan, Matt Cassel and Josh Kline, but they also have a former front-office member in Tennessee. 

Titans general manager Jon Robinson cut his teeth with the Patriots as an area scout, then climbed the ladder to eventually become Belichick's director of college scouting. 

One of Robinson's biggest contributions to the Patriots still resonates in New England, and it's one of the reasons the Patriots are the favorites to win the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. In 2010, Robinson was in charge of college scouting when he became enamored with a mammoth tight end out of the University of Arizona. 

"One of the players that I really liked a lot was Rob Gronkowski," Robinson told Peter Schrager in Robinson's first offseason in Tennessee. 

"We went back and forth on him quite a bit. I put a lot of tapes together of him versus Patrick Chung, [Arizona] played Oregon, and he had a really good game that game...He had a really good game against Patrick that game. 

"We went back and forth on Rob. We were fortunate enough to end up getting him there in the second round. I wouldn't say that I was the one that found him . . . It wasn't like he was a secret, but I felt like he really fit what we wanted to be offensively. Through a lot of work on him, we ended up getting him, and he's more than panned out for sure."

Robinson added: "I thought if the injuries checked out and our medical staff was able to manage him and keep him healthy, he could be a really special player. It's a testament to Rob, too, he really earned everything he's got there."

Schrager's interview with Robinson is a good listen for those interested on how someone can rise from being a linebackers coach at Nicholls State to the GM of a playoff team. Relationships helped (former Patriots front-office man Jason Licht opened the door for Robinson to get his start in New England), as did impressive work on the road (his report on South Carolina defensive end Kalimba Edwards before the 2002 draft wowed then-Patriots personnel chief Scott Pioli). 

Though there are many examples of the ways in which the Patriots benefitted from Robinson's 12 years with the team - they drafted Gronkowski, Chung, Ryan, Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Marcus Cannon, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Nate Ebner, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon with Robinson's as director of college scouting - they're hoping he hasn't constructed a Titans roster capable of beating them at Gillette Stadium this weekend. 

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