How do you defend Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez?
It’s a question which has been eating at defensive coordinators around the league all season long.
The Patriots’ tight end duo tormented opposing teams week after week this season, churning out yardage and touchdowns at a record clip.
They put up the most receptions by a tight end tandem in NFL history (169), and combined to record over 2,200 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. Take a second and allow those numbers to sink in for a minute. They’re that impressive.
So, seriously, how do you stop the Pats second-year tight ends? Is it possible?
“You really can’t. You really just have to try and contain (them),” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re really good. We definitely have our hands full.”
That might be the understatement of the postseason. Even when teams know they need to stop Gronkowski and Hernandez to have a shot at knocking off the Patriots, they still can’t get the job done. Last week, the two men combined for 200 receiving yards and four touchdowns in a dominating divisional round win over the Broncos.
Of the Pats’ two tight ends, the 6-foot-1, 245-lb. Hernandez is the more athletic and explosive guy in terms of his ability to stretch the field and get up the seams in a hurry. He’s too quick for most linebackers and too strong for most defensive backs. And even when the Florida product isn’t making plays in the passing game, he still puts his stamp on the offense, like he did last week when he led the Patriots in rushing yards (he had 61 yards on five carries against Denver).
While Hernandez had a great season, it’s been Gronkowski that has taken the league by storm. The 22-year-old set single-season NFL records for most receiving yards (1,327) and receiving touchdowns (17) by a tight end, numbers which are monstrous even for a most wide receivers.
At 6-foot-6, 265 lbs., Gronkowski is built like a truck but has the hands and agility to make plays anywhere on the field. He can sneak past you down the field and then body you up and come away with the football even when there are multiple defenders on him.
“It’s like he’s playing basketball on the field,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “He knows how to box you out, he knows how to use his body. He uses his hands and goes up for it and rips it down.”
“He’s got a huge catch radius,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s got huge hands; he holds the ball in his hand and it looks like a Twinkie. There are guys that are lined up on him, and they’re right there, but (Tom) Brady puts it in spots where only (Gronkowski) can go get it. He made a phenomenal catch against the Broncos in the corner of the end zone, among others. So it’s a nightmare.”
Gronkowski and Hernandez are so athletic that the Patriots are able to split them out wide, essentially making them giant wide receivers who almost always are a mismatch against whomever is unfortunate enough to be lined up opposite them.
The problem the Ravens face is that they don’t have linebackers that can cover the Pats’ tight ends down the field. Jameel McClain’s strength isn’t dropping into coverage, Jarret Johnson isn’t the guy he once was when it comes to defending the pass and Ray Lewis ... well, I’ll just put it nicely and say that if Lewis is matched up with either Hernandez or Gronkowski, then the Ravens are in trouble.
The Ravens will almost certainly try to bracket the tight ends by having one defender run underneath Gronkowski or Hernandez and then have a safety come over the top to provide help. They can’t commit two defenders to both tight ends, however, and they certainly can’t double those guys every play.
You have to believe that when either Gronkowski or Hernandez are in single coverage, Brady will see it and make an effort to feed the pigskin to his big-bodied tight ends. It will be on the Ravens to limit the impact both guys have on the Pats’ offense.
“The whole defense collectively has got to do their part to help,” Pagano said. “If somebody has got (Gronkowski or Hernandez) in man coverage, somebody else has got to help him.”