FOXBORO — Playoff football can be unpredictable but one thing is sure about Saturday night’s divisional game between the defending Super Bowl champions and the upstarts from Nashville. Rob Gronkowski will not repeat his disappearing act of two weeks ago.
You may recall that is the game when the Patriots’ burly All-Pro tight end went out to play the New York Jets and ended up being enveloped in the Bermuda Triangle. He disappeared.
Not once was he targeted that afternoon in a 26-6 blowout in which a second-half decision was made to leave him on the sidelines. Considering that he’d disappeared anyway, what difference did it make? After all, they were playing the Jets.
On Saturday night, the Patriots will be playing the playoff version of the Jets, a scrappy Tennessee Titans team but one that only reached the playoffs by winning its final game against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that seemed to approach that meaningless affair the way Gronk did the Jets. They disappeared too.
But now it’s playoff time and Gronk is, as he said a half-dozen times during a 10-minute interview, “super excited.” I’m sure he is and I’m equally sure Tennessee’s 80 years young (literally if you know him) defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is anything but “super excited’’ at the prospect of having to tangle with Gronkowski again.
LeBeau has dealt with him before with modest success and you don’t have to be Amos Alonzo Stagg to know how he’ll go about it this time. Frankly, it probably won’t matter how because, as one veteran NFL defensive coordinator familiar with LeBeau and the Titans said yesterday “An athletic animal like Gronk is a problem, man. Those kind of animals can hurt you in the intermediate zone and can take you deep. You put someone underneath him and a safety over the top but the best way to control Gronk is to keep him on the bench.’’
Two weeks ago, the Jets blanketed Gronk and Tennessee will try to do the same because to try and play him in single coverage is to ask to see a lot of footballs spiked in your end zone. The problem is a week ago the Titans tried to do the same to the second-best tight end in the AFC, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, and he annihilated them until the one thing the Patriots have to fear occurred. Kelce got concussed.
Up to the point where Kelce began hearing the sound of wind chimes in his head, he’d made four catches for 66 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown. LeBeau’s defense had no answer for him so how are they going to come up with one for Gronk?
Complicating things further for Tennessee, Gronk seems to be in playoff form, having caught 28 of the last 39 balls thrown his way for 464 yards, a wide receiver-like 16.6 yards per catch. Three of those ended up in the Spike Zone as well, meaning Gronk was slamming the ball in the end zone after slamming a few defenders out of his way.
To be fair, Tennessee is not without some solid defenders. Wesley Woodyard is having, at 31, the best season of his career and is a versatile inside linebacker who stays on the field on all downs, which is a rarity today, because he can stuff the run, get after the quarterback and drop into coverage and more than hold his own.
Behind him stands a Pro Bowl quality free safety in Kevin Byard, who can cover and hit and all that. His problem is he’s giving away five inches and over 40 pounds to Gronk, making it a physical mismatch if they’re left alone to hand fight their way downfield.
The story is no different at strong safety so can LeBeau concoct some sort of zone coverage that will allow his defense enough time to get to Tom Brady with his famous zone blitz package or might he drop eight into coverage and hope giving Brady all day to throw won’t be fatal?
A LeBeau defense has faced Gronkowski four times, three times in Pittsburgh and two years ago with Tennessee. About the only good news for LeBeau is the last time was the best time, for what that’s worth.
Gronk had 21 receptions on 24 targets in three games vs. LeBeau’s Steeler defenses, piling up 309 yards and four touchdowns. In his only crack at him since coming to Tennessee two years ago, LeBeau’s plan held Gronk to five catches on 11 targets for only 54 yards but he again found his way into the end zone. So LeBeau’s various plans have thus far averaged out to allow Gronk 6.5 catches, 91 yards and just over a touchdown per game. If you have reason to believe this will change Saturday night after what Kelce did to the Titans, you are not necessarily related to Mike Mularkey but you’re full of malarkey.
This is hardly LeBeau’s fault, although this week it is his problem. When healthy, Gronkowski has been an unsolvable matchup problem for nearly every team he’s faced, Chiefs safety Eric Berry being one of the few able to handle him with reasonable alacrity without additional help.
He shreds zones, is too big for most safeties in man coverage and too fast for linebackers put in that position. Added to that this week the fact he’s both “super excited’’ and super healthy as the postseason is about to begin for the first time in nearly two years. This is not super news for LeBeau but it seemed to please Gronk yesterday.