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.