The Indianapolis Colts accomplished one goal in last season’s AFC Championship Game: They limited Rob Gronkowski. That’s it.
Gronkowski hasn’t been held under 30 receiving yards very frequently in his six-year NFL career. In fact, it’s only happened 15 times in the New England Patriots tight end’s career, and nine occasions came during his rookie season. Gronkowski also was held under 30 yards when he broke his arm against the Houston Texans in the 2012 playoffs and when he was nursing a high-ankle sprain in Super Bowl XLVI.
The Colts kept Gronkowski under 30 yards in last year’s AFC title game, as well, but they learned the hard way that limiting the tight end doesn’t lead to certain victory (the Patriots are 12-3 when Gronkowski is held under 30 yards), after they lost 45-7.
The Colts perhaps paid too much attention to Gronkowski, who had three catches on eight targets for 27 yards and a touchdown, leaving wide receiver Julian Edelman to go off for nine catches on 11 targets for 98 yards.
Gronkowski was bracketed, bumped at the line and double-covered. There were times the big tight end was left one-on-one, but the Colts made it apparent early he was their main focus.
Let’s check out a few examples:
Gronkowski begins the formation lined up in the backfield, then he goes in motion and splits out wide. Colts No. 1 cornerback Vontae Davis swaps from Edelman to Gronkowski, leaving linebacker Jerrell Freeman on the shifty receiver, which is a massive mismatch for quarterback Tom Brady. Edelman easily grabs a 7-yard reception.
Gronkowski is bumped by outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome off the line of scrimmage then picked up by safety LaRon Landry and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. That left running back Shane Vereen open against Freeman for a 30-yard catch down the sideline.
Gronkowski again is bumped at the line of scrimmage then tracked by two safeties, leaving the middle of the field open for Edelman, who dropped Brady’s pass.
Four(!) defenders track Gronkowski into his route, leaving Edelman wide open for a 12-yard reception.
Brady has yet to complete a pass to Gronkowski midway through the second quarter and forces a pass to the big tight end down the middle of the field despite double coverage. Brady is picked off by D’Qwell Jackson, leading to the Colts testing the football’s PSI on the sideline, kicking off Deflategate and driving every Patriots reporter mad.
Brady, throwing a fully-inflated football, fires a pass to Gronkowski despite tight coverage from cornerback Greg Toler. Edelman, lined up in the slot opposite Gronkowski, is double-covered, showing how it’s impossible for a team to properly cover both talented receivers.
On fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski is lined up across from Davis, and cornerback Darius Butler follows him into his route, leaving Edelman on Jackson for 6 yards and a first down.
The Colts can try to take away Gronkowski on Sunday night in their Week 6 matchup with the Patriots, but that will only leave Edelman and running back Dion Lewis open to feast on single- or non-existent coverage. There’s really no solution to this issue, so, uh, good luck, Colts.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) talk on the sideline during the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports