- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

ASHBURN — Rob Gronkowski was inexplicably standing uncovered at the 16-yard line. How could it be possible that a team failed to account for the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end whose body type and skill set are better suited for a video game rather than real life?

It happened in the season opener when the New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-21, the night they received their Super Bowl rings. The Patriots‘ tight end split wide to the right side of the field and nobody switched over. Tom Brady immediately fired to Gronkowski, who swatted away 5-foot-11 free safety Robert Golden on his way to the first of three touchdowns.

Washington Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan knows the team can not afford those types of communication breakdowns when they face the Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. In 2011, Kerrigan’s rookie year, Gronkowski caught six passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 victory over the Redskins.

“He’s tough enough to stop when he has one or two guys on him,” Kerrigan said. “If you leave him wide open, it’s almost stealing for them.”

Gronkowski is scorching defenses at a torrid pace this season. Through seven games, he’s caught 40 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski is on pace to finish the season with 1,477 receiving yards — 150 more than he had in 2011, when he set the single-season record for the most receiving yards by a tight end.

What makes Gronkowski so difficult to cover is his ability to line up all over the field, whether it is out wide, in the slot or at the end of the offensive line.

“Gronk is the best because he’s excellent, obviously, in the pass routes ­— big, strong guy after the catch — but he’s also good blocking,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “That combination of being a good blocker and a great pass receiver and can split outside and win one-on-one matchups is a special quality to have at tight end. That’s why he’s the best. It’s a nightmare for a defense to have to deal with, but we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to have somebody out there on him. We’re going to cover him and he’s going to have to make a great catch. If he does, he does, but we’re going to compete against him, go for the ball and play.”

The question of course, is how exactly do the Redskins deal with it?

One way is to cover him one-on-one and hope for the best. The Dallas Cowboys did that and held Gronkowski to four catches for 67 yards without a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Byron Jones shadowed Gronkowski — an unenviable assignment — but he did it well.

The six-foot, 205-pound Jones was physical with Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage, trying his best to disrupt his timing. There were times when the Patriots‘ tight end had his way with the rookie, like a 33-yard reception in the third quarter, but that is almost inevitable. After the catch, Gronkowski threw Jones to the ground like a rag doll.

Redskins cornerback Chris Culliver is the most comparable player to Jones on the Redskins‘ roster. He’s the same height, six pounds lighter and likes to get physical with receivers.

However, Culliver was hesitant to say a one-on-one strategy would work.

“I can’t just say I’m going to go follow Gronk around,” Culliver said. “That’s not necessarily our scheme. It’s hard. What if he’s in the running back position? Like I said, it helps. It’s the rush and the coverage working together, I trust a guy like [defensive end] Ricky Jean [Francois] just like he trusts me. I trust him to get to the quarterback, just like he expects me to cover. [Brady is] a good quarterback that has a lot of awareness. You can’t stand around and be in one position. He’ll pick you off and that’s when that offense is explosive.”

The other strategy is to bracket Gronkowski with a linebacker and a safety. However, double-covering him opens a host of other options for Brady.

This was on full display in the Patriots‘ 36-7 win against the Miami Dolphins last week. The Dolphins shadowed Gronkowski with outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins and srong safety Reshad Jones. Running back Dion Lewis was wide open in the middle of the field for a 16-yard touchdown reception.

Gronkowski was taken out of the play, but he raised his hands in celebration before Lewis even crossed the goal line. He knew the effect he had on the defense.

“You gotta mix it up, they’re so good,” inside linebacker Perry Riley said. “It’s pick your poison. [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick has done a great job putting a team together. They have a stud like Gronk they know will get double teams. They have players in space: [wide receiver Julian] Edelman, [wide receiver Danny] Amendola, Dion Lewis. They have good players around Gronk where you can’t have all your attention on him. You gotta be honest.”

While the theories differ on the most effective way to cover Gronkowski, or at least slow him down, there is one common thread: Pressure the quarterback.

Redskins nose tackle Terrance Knighton has faced Brady three times as a member of the Denver Broncos. Knighton had a memorable sack in the Broncos’ 26-16 win in the 2013 AFC championship game.

“I think the key is when you play against quarterbacks like this that can basically drop back to pass with their eyes closed, guys like Peyton [Manning] and guys like Aaron Rodgers, it’s timing to them,” Knighton said. “They know where their guys are going to be. They trust their guys. Most importantly, we need to hit him, make him feel uncomfortable and have to stop their run. Their play action is the best I’ve seen. They can hit you so many ways, to make them one-dimensional, stop them from running the ball and focus getting after the quarterback. It’s not easy, but it makes it easier.”

Then, Knighton suggested, there may be one other way to stop Gronkowski.

“The only way to stop him is hope they undercook the food he gets in room service,” Knighton joked. “Other than that, you can’t.” 

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