Rob Gronkowski is probably hoping to deflate a few more footballs in Super Bowl XLIX.
How many balls Rob Gronkowski ultimately spikes Sunday, Feb. 1 could decide the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks championship showdown.
Outside of Week 2’s disastrous matchup against the San Diego Chargers, however, the Seahawks defense has been very good at limiting tight ends, despite playing some of the NFL’s best players at the position.
They held Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to one catch for 16 yards, the Denver Broncos’ Julius Thomas to three catches for 17 yards, Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Jason Witten to two catches for 24 yards, Kansas City Chiefs up-and-comer Travis Kelce to three catches for 37 yards and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz to two catches for 39 yards.
So what happened when the Seahawks allowed seven receptions on seven targets for 89 yards and three touchdowns to Antonio Gates? Kam Chancellor, despite not being listed on the injury report, complained of painful bone spurs in his ankle after the game. Chancellor did appear slowed while I re-watched the Seahawks’ loss, and he took part in allowing all three of Gates’ touchdowns. He was in single coverage once and was supposed to help over the top on scores allowed by linebackers Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright.
–Gates, lined up at the bottom of the screen, simply powers and runs past Chancellor for the score.
–Gates, at the bottom of the screen again, basically throws around Smith like a rag doll before shaking past him for the score.
–Gates, at the top of the screen now, runs past Wright, who is supposed to have help over the tom from Chancellor. Chancellor is late and Gates grabs his third TD.
–Here’s a play when Chancellor shows off his impressive fluidity for a 6-foot-3, 232-pounder. Lined up at strong safety on the defensive right, he expertly tracks Ertz across the field.
Chancellor is healthy now and playing at a much higher level, but he won’t be the lone Seahawk covering Gronkowski.
The Seahawks stay in a zone Cover-3 on most passing snaps. They rarely shift players to create favorable matchups, so the Patriots, ultimately, will be deciding who covers their otherworldly tight end.
When Gronkowski is on the line and crosses over the middle, then either Wright or fellow linebacker Bobby Wagner is likely to cover him. When the big tight end runs a seam route, then Chancellor or free safety Earl Thomas likely will be responsible. And when the Patriots split him out, as they’re apt to do, then he’ll either be cornerback Richard Sherman or Byron Maxwell’s responsibility.
The Seahawks typically didn’t double team Gates, Ertz or Kelce in games I rewatched, but there were times when a safety and linebacker would track a tight end in special circumstances.
Gronkowski played the Seahawks in 2012, and Seattle used similar coverages on the All-Pro. They had mixed results, allowing six catches for 61 yards while he mostly was covered by Chancellor, Wright and Wagner.
–Gronkowski is positioned inline at the bottom of the screen, lined up across rom Wright. The linebacker has help from Thomas, who nearly picks off quarterback Tom Brady, over the top.
–Gronkowski, lined up next to the left tackle, skids past Chancellor with ease on a deep post pattern.
Like most teams, the Seahawks don’t have the perfect player to cover Gronkowski. Wright is slower than the tight end, Chancellor isn’t quite as strong or agile, and Sherman and Maxwell likely would get overpowered at the line of scrimmage — especially considering Mr. “U Mad Bro’s” elbow injury.
Still, the Seahawks have six great options to track the tight end, which makes their Cover 3 effective. Every player is trustworthy in coverage against different kinds of matchups.
If the Patriots can help it, they would benefit from staying away from Thomas — too dangerous — and Wagner — one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL with the perfect combination of speed, strength and play-making ability. Still, Gronkowski is much bigger than either player and could still win a 1-on-1 matchup.
Brady’s best method in getting Gronkowski the ball — outside of trying to match him up against Wright or Smith as often as possible or hoping Sherman is more injured than he’s letting on — is to find holes in the Seahawks’ Cover 3, which can be exploited.
–Quarterback Mark Sanchez is getting sacked on this play, but Ertz still has found a seam in the middle of the Seahawks’ Cover 3. The Patriots will try to pick the perfect moment to exploit that seam in the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks won’t make it easy to target Gronkowski, since they’re so versatile. But unlike the Patriots, their goal isn’t to confuse teams. Brady knows what they’ll be doing, and he’ll have to pick his spots in finding his biggest weapon.
Gronkowski is healthy for his first postseason since his rookie season, and he’s nearly impossible to stop, despite some ideal matchups.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images