FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick rose to prominence as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator in the 1980s. During that time, he had the pleasure of coaching the most dominant defensive player of the era: Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor, who earned a remarkable 10 consecutive first-team All-Pro selections from 1981 to 1990, was an unblockable juggernaut for the Giants, forcing opponents to alter entire game plans in an attempt to keep him away from their quarterback. And even that typically didn’t work.
Belichick has seen two of his current players — New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and special teams ace Matthew Slater — receive similar treatment.
“I think Rob’s seen a lot of different coverages, seen a lot of different looks, ways that people try to defend him,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I think as any player like that sees more of those things, he learns how to deal with them. ‘Here’s how I deal with this situation, and here’s how I deal with that situation. This works, this doesn’t, or this works better than that, or this has a place.’ I think those kinds of things that specifically apply to him.
“(It’s) the same thing that Matt Slater deals with on kick coverage. The same thing that when I coached Taylor that he dealt with as a pass rusher. You see five or six different things that everybody else doesn’t see. They see what they normally see — those guys see different things.”
No defender in the NFL can match up physically with Gronkowski, who feasts on single coverage. Just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who allowed the four-time All-Pro to go off for a career-high 168 yards on nine catches Sunday in a 27-24 Patriots victory.
Slater doesn’t have the name recognition that Gronkowski does, but he’s been one of the best special teams players of the past decade, earning four All-Pro nods and seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
Want proof of how much respect opposing teams have for Slater? Here’s how the Kansas City Chiefs chose to defend him during the 2015 playoffs:
“Slater has seen every kind of double-team block, every type of trap block, every type of short set, deep set,” Belichick said. “Every way he can be blocked, he has seen that. I think Rob has seen every different way you can cover him from an inside or an outside position based on his style of play, the way teams try to play him. So you learn how to deal with those.
“That’s certainly something that experience teaches you, because there’s a certain point in your career where you don’t deal with those things, but as you build up and have success and different teams use different techniques or schemes, you’ve got to figure out how to deal with them, or they can take you out of being a productive player. …
“Those players continue to be productive even though they see repeated schemes or techniques to try and slow them down. They find ways to still be productive within those schemes. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for Rob.”
Gronkowski and Slater both were voted to the 2018 Pro Bowl, along with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and fullback James Develin.
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