FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski is one of the NFL’s biggest matchup nightmares, a human version of Pennywise the Clown, the child-eating monster from the box office smash “It”. (Have you seen that movie? Or the trailers? Pennywise scares the bejesus out of me.) Gronk is almost as scary, terrorizing defensive coordinators, safeties and linebackers for the better part of the decade.
But last Thursday night, he ran into a Kansas City defense hell bent on neutralizing him. That’s just what they did.
Gronk was targeted just four times in the 42-27 loss, catching a pair of passes for 33 yards and no scores.
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“We just weren’t clicking,” Gronkowski said following the defeat. “It starts with me. Gotta get open more. You’ve gotta get better separation. Make some plays. Get the offense rolling. Just wasn’t going to happen.”
It wasn’t, but there have been plenty of times where Gronkowski has been the focal point of a defense and still produced. Just go back to the last time the Pats and Chiefs met in the playoffs back in 2015. The big fella feasted for 83 yards on 7 catches and twice took ‘em to the house. On one of those in particular, Gronk embarrassed safety Eric Berry, making the kind of move that leads all the sports shows. That wasn’t the case to open 2017. Berry is an All-Pro, and he played like one before exiting the game late with a torn Achilles tendon.
Now despite Berry’s skill and playing strength, it was still surprising to see Gronk essentially get erased by one defender. That’s not to say he only saw single coverage, especially in the red zone. There, Gronk drew multiple defenders, including in the third quarter when the Chiefs passed him from one guy to the next to next. You figure with three players locked in on the tight end, someone else would come free. But the Pats receivers had a severe case of separation anxiety. Chris Hogan was blanketed. Brandin Cooks as well. The underneath routes were covered. It was just that kind of night, a night where despite 27 points, the other side made an efficient offense look spotty.
In theory, there should be significantly more room against New Orleans Sunday. The Saints defense has been a hot mess for years now, with head coach Sean Payton cycling through defensive coordinators the way a fat guy cycles through sweat pants. A year ago, their safeties were in the bottom half of the league in coverage stats according to the analytics web site Pro Football Focus. They cast aside Jairus Byrd and replaced him with Marcus Williams. Kenny Vaccaro is a holdover, as is Vonn Bell. Payton saw the Chiefs film. If he thinks Gronk is human now, the Saints boss isn’t acknowledging that publicly.
“You have to find him first,” said Payton. “He lines up everywhere. He is outside, he is inside, he is in-line. I think his versatility is one of his biggest assets. He’s a guy that can play in the running game, just as well in protection, just as well as a receiver. So that flexibility and versatility does not make him one-dimensional. He is a big target and he has strong hands in traffic. The location throws that Tom (Brady) does a great job with become challenging in regards to how you defend.”
That ability to line up anywhere, and hurt you from anywhere should -- in theory -- make life easier for the rest of the offense.
“I think that they do a great job of moving him around to these different spots.,” added Payton. “Often times you get a pre-snap man or zone read based on who goes outside to cover him. If there is a receiver in the slot and Gronkowski is outside and you see a big go out there, safety or linebacker, it is probably man. There are a number of things you have to look closely at and watch on the tape. It used to be that you would find those tight ends next to the tackle and then one day [Kellen] Winslow stood up in a two-point stance and it was like the solar eclipse. Then someone said, why don’t we put [Shannon] Sharpe outside of [Ed] McCaffrey in Denver and that was like we split the atom and pretty soon they’re everywhere.”
Everywhere yes, but there’s only one Gronk. The Pats need to find that player again to get back into the win column and help mitigate the loss the Julian Edelman (season) and likely Danny Amendola (concussion/knee).
“When he’s out there for us, he’s obviously someone they have to pay attention to,” said Tom Brady. “He can get a lot of other guys open just by his presence out there. I love playing with him. I mean, he’s really a one-of-a-kind type of player. He’s had so much production, and I’m sure he’ll be fired up and ready to go this weekend."