JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It may be the NFL’s greatest unsolved mystery. How do you defend Rob Gronkowski?
“Damn,” says Jaguars defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. “That’s a good question.”
Asked the same question on Monday – how do you defend Gronk in Sunday’s AFC championship – Jags coach Doug Marrone said, “I’m not sure you can.”
Dareus breaks the Pats tight end down this way: “He can be X. He can be Y. He can be slot. He can be tight end. He can be blocking tight end. Just so dynamic.”
So, how to defend him?
“Best way is to have a big cover linebacker who can run,” Dareus said. “In Buffalo we had Manny Lawson. He did a pretty good job. That’s the only thing I can say.”
Manny Lawson is 6-foot-5 and years ago once ran a 4.43 at the scouting combine. Do the Jags have anyone like that?
“Not as big as Manny Lawson,” Dareus said. “Our guys can cover pretty well. It’s just … He’s a big dude. Simple as that.”
Gronkowski is not only the best tight end remaining in the playoffs; he’s the best skill-position player. The Minnesota Vikings have Adam Thielen and the Philadelphia Eagles have Zach Ertz and the Jags have Leonard Fournette, but Gronkowski has traits of all three.
What will the Jags counter with? Jalen Ramsey? Myles Jack? Both? They have the speed. But both are listed as 6-1, and Gronkowski is 6-6. Add the “catch radius” Marrone and others describe – supplemented by a subtle shove from the burly tight end – and difficult becomes borderline impossible.
ESPN has a neat stat on this: air yards per target. It’s a measure of how long Tom Brady’s passes travel before being caught (or falling incomplete). When Gronkowski is in the game, Brady’s air yards per target jumps from 7.4 to 9.4. That’s a 27 percent difference. Gronkowski in the slot allows the other, smaller receivers to move farther out along the flanks. It’s even more extreme when Gronkowski lines up on the outside. Put simply: Gronkowski is his own spread offense.
One of the underrated aspects of the Brady-Gronk connection is air space. Brady is 6-4 and he rarely moves except to shuffle his feet in the pocket. So unlike a passer who throws on the run, Brady is as tall as he can be when he delivers the throw. Passes to Gronkowski are almost football alley-oops.
“Gotta be constantly, constantly in his face,” Dareus says of Brady.
The former Bill is standing in the Jaguars’ locker room as he says this, and footage of the Patriots’ offense is playing on a big screen across the room.
“Watch this next play right here,” Dareus says, turning toward the screen.
It’s a play in the red zone, against the New York Jets.
“That’s their primary personnel,” Dareus notes. “No running back, two tight ends. There’s the A-gap, and there’s the B-gap.”
He points to the openings on either side of the center.
The play begins. Brady drops back, shifts his view to the A-gap, sees nothing, then shifts to the B-gap and fires a touchdown to Chris Hogan.
“See that? They block it that way.”
It seems simple, and Gronkowski is not involved other than as a decoy, but that simplicity is devastating.
“Every two steps we took,” Dareus says of his time playing against the Pats in Buffalo, “the ball was gone.”
So maybe the question isn’t how to defend Gronkowski, but how to defend Brady. Gronkowski is likely to catch almost anything in that catch radius, so the key is to prevent it from getting there. That’s not any simpler.
“Brady has those two windows,” Dareus says, “and it’s like, he’s going to throw it quick out of those windows. Once those start closing, he hates trying to get rid of it. That’s when the ball is going out of bounds, or to the ground. He’s still gonna figure another way out, but it’s consistently being able to do that.”
Some of the ingredients are there. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell is 6-8. Fellow pass rusher Malik Jackson was on the Denver team that frustrated and beat up Brady two seasons ago in the AFC championship game. Yannick Ngakoue looks like a younger Von Miller. Dareus, like Marrone, is familiar with the Patriots from his time in the AFC East. It all adds up to an answer; just maybe not the complete answer.
How do you defend Gronk? Be tall, be strong, be quick, be brash.
And be in the backfield as fast as humanly possible.