New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a nightmare matchup for any NFL defense. With a monster frame and underrated route running skills, he can simply post up defenders at the point of attack or beat guys off the jump to create some separation.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said on Wednesday that "there is no secret formula" to stopping Gronk, but I think we can help him out here in figuring out to limit Gronk's production in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
The Jags have a top-tier defense, but there aren't many players like Gronk. Along with their core three-deep zone coverage, some quarters, man-free and pressure, here are three ways the Jags can scheme him up:
1. Put Jalen Ramsey on him in the red zone
It isn't realistic to put Ramsey on Gronk all game. But with the ball inside the 20-yard line, I'd want the best matchup possible in man coverage. Instead of watching Gronk box out a safety on the back-shoulder fade (again) or gain leverage on a throw inside the numbers, give me the natural coverage ability and swagger of Ramsey, a first-team All-Pro cornerback.
That's where I can lean on the length, talent and confidence of the Jaguars' young superstar to challenge the route. The footwork? It's elite. The physicality is going to be there too. Ramsey will cut off that release and use his hands to take control of the route. Also, with the flexibility in his hips to laterally change directions, I can count on Ramsey to show up against the fade, slant or any option route in the middle of the field.
Plus, we can't forget about the ball skills here. Ramsey has the ability to locate the rock and finish. Climb the ladder or use that length to get the ball out? No doubt. He's going to compete. That's big in a matchup the Jaguars have to win when Tom Brady moves the ball into scoring position.
2. Disrupt the release ... with a safety waiting to jump
If the Jags want to give Gronk a free release off the line of scrimmage, they can forget about limiting him. Teams can't play straight off-man with a safety (or align in straight Quarters coverage) and expect to take away the seam, the 12-yard square-in or the corner route. Gronk is going to initiate contact and gain leverage to the ball. It's like clockwork when he separates at the top of the route. And leaning on Cover 3 isn't an answer either. Gronk can dice up the middle of the field there.
If Jacksonville can get hands on Gronk at the line to disrupt the release (and timing of the route), however, the Jags can make Brady go elsewhere with the ball. That's why I like the idea of using linebackers Myles Jack or Telvin Smith to chuck or jam Gronkowski with safety Barry Church sitting there to pick up the route. This allows the Jags to be physical with Gronk while giving Church a boost in coverage.
What's the technique for Church? Play off 7 yards with a slight outside shade and "catch" Gronk. Now, Gronk has to adjust his release to work through that initial contact with Church waiting to pick up the route. It's a small thing, but it's necessary. Free releases are ultimately an open door for Gronk to carve up the Jags' secondary. Take those away and make the big man work. The contact is coming.
3. Bracket him on money downs
The Jags can steal the Patriots' defensive blueprint versus top offensive weapons and double Gronkowski on money downs -- third-down throws. Think of what the Patriots have done to Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins in the past or, as we saw last week, against Titans tight end Delanie Walker early in the game. New England takes those guys out of the play with two defenders. That's it.
Call this a bracket or a "cut coverage" or man-free "double." The terminology doesn't really matter. What does matter is the Jags' ability to erase Gronk from the route tree. They get there with multiple combinations. Use Smith or Jack with a safety rolling down to take away the inside break. Play press at the line with safety Tashaun Gipson driving top-down on the throw. Or simply bracket him with sub-package personnel. With Jacksonville's speed and athleticism, there are a lot of options. The Jaguars can do this while keeping one safety free to defend the post.
The Jaguars' goal here is to force Brady to come off his read with Gronk or to make someone else beat them. That is critical given Gronk's ability to create positive matchups anywhere he wants. Yes, Brady can still toss the ball to Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan or James White. But I'm going to trust the Jags' defense in that situation because it isn't going to let Gronk consistently move the sticks on high-percentage throws. Nope. He isn't getting the ball when we need a play to win on third down.