It is impossible to prepare for a fully healthy Rob Gronkowski.
It also is impossible to try to figure out how a team might cover the New England Patriots tight end.
Gronkowski truly is one of a kind, and the Ravens weren’t forced to cover him in 2013’s regular-season matchup or in the 2012 playoffs. He’s stronger and more physical than New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, and he’s younger, faster and more agile than the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates.
The Baltimore Ravens matched up against both players this season, and how they covered Graham and Gates can only hint at how they’ll handle Gronkowski on Saturday at 4:30 p.m., when they play the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens rarely double covered either Graham (six catches on 10 targets for 47 yards with two touchdowns) or Gates (seven catches on nine targets for 83 yards), and when they did commit two defenders to the All-Pro tight ends, it typically was to bump at the line with a pass rusher and then have a linebacker or safety pick them up in coverage.
Gronkowski gets bumped in games, but he also gets bracketed by opposing defenses. A linebacker will start out on Gronk, and a safety will be deeper down the field to pick him up.
The Patriots should expect the Ravens to bump Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage often, which could hinder Baltimore’s biggest advantage over New England — their pass rush. That time spent knocking Gronkowski off his route won’t be used to pressure quarterback Tom Brady.
Gronkowski also won’t give up at the line of scrimmage like Graham did in Week 12. Graham stopped firing off the line by the fourth quarter and began to absorb the Ravens’ jams.
Watch Graham at the end of the right side of the line pause to take the bump before extending into his route:
Gronkowski, unlike Graham, embraces contact and typically plays through it well.
The Ravens found success against Graham when they chose to cover him one-on-one with safety Will Hill, who should have a long career (as long as he stays out of trouble) covering tight ends in the NFL. Hill, at 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, is significantly smaller than Graham, but he’s strong and has a nose for the football.
Below, Hill picks up Graham, inline on the right side of the line, on a 10-yard in route, and makes a great break on the ball for the deflection:
The Ravens stayed in Cover 2 for most of their game against the Chargers, and their linebackers, C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith, typically handled Gates. They had varying degrees of success, but Philip Rivers also exploited the Ravens’ zone defense.
The Chargers ran three similar plays to end the first half. In the first, seen below, Gates lines up in the slot on the left side and runs into the flat. Since the Ravens are in Cover 2, the right cornerback has to commit to the receiver, running downfield, or Gates. The cornerback picks the receiver and Gates catches a 6-yard pass:
Here the Ravens do it again, except this time, the Ravens are in Cover 2-man, and Mosley picks up Gates — too late — and Gates catches an 8-yard pass:
The Ravens run it once more, and this time the cornerback picks up Gates, leaving the receiver open downfield. Rivers misses his throw, but this play showcases how smart offenses can exploit a Cover 2:
The Ravens are likely to use some combination of how they covered Gates and Graham to take on Gronkowski. He’ll likely be bumped at the line of scrimmage often, but if the Ravens don’t want to slow their pass rush, then they’ll also need to bracket Gronkowski, which will likely make them stray from their Cover 2 by using man coverage with their linebackers.
Whatever the Ravens do, Hill should be heavily involved. Gronkowski is better than Graham, but Hill even was able to out-physical Gates at times in Week 13, which is no easy feat.
Hill, on the right of the screen, actually whiffs on Gates at the line of scrimmage, but he shows off his athletic mismatch by recovering to break up the pass:
The Ravens have to pick and choose their battles while covering Gronkowski, pressuring Brady and making sure the rest of the field isn’t open for Patriots receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. Hill, who limited Graham to one catch on five targets for a 5-yard touchdown with a pick six of his own, might be the most difficult matchup that Gronkowski has faced one-on-one all season.
Thumbnail photo via Elise Amendola/Associated Press