The most concerning problem facing the Green Bay Packers' defense this week is the player who is arguably the best tight end in football right now. In writing about Rob Gronkowski, I expected to find that no Packers player can match up with him physically and that it would likely lead to the Patriots exploiting the middle of the field using their biggest weapon (in both a literal and figurative sense).
However, in going down the rabbit hole of statistics, I have come to believe that those who actually need to play the best on defense in order for the Packers to win on Sunday are the players not covering Gronk.
Rob Gronkowski is listed at 6'6" and 265 pounds, and he ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day coming out of Arizona.
Now let's look at the players on the Packers' roster who are candidates to cover Gronk. Obviously, 40-yard dash time isn't a great measure of playing speed (especially for one of these players who attended the Scouting Combine almost a decade ago), but it's at least one data point and it's the easiest to use and obtain.
|Micah Hyde||Slot Corner||6'0"||197||4.52|
|Casey Hayward||Slot Corner||5'11"||192||4.47|
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||Safety||6'1"||208||4.58|
|Brad Jones||Inside Linebacker||6'3"||242||4.54*|
|A.J. Hawk||Inside Linebacker||6'1"||235||4.59|
*Did not work out at combine, time is from Pro Day
As you can see, each of the Packers' players who might be tasked with covering Gronkowski timed faster than he did in workouts. Of course, this doesn't account for playing speed - as we saw A.J. Hawk outrunned by a less-than-100% Kyle Rudolph on Sunday, it's tough to imagine him being asked to cover Gronk one-on-one. However, the size issue is the bigger problem here. Any defender gives up at least three inches and, regardless, the big tight end tends to make many of his catches in traffic rather than gaining major separation from his defender one-on-one.
Double-Coverage Is Critical
Since one-on-one coverage doesn't appear to be a realistic option, the only feasible solution is going to be keeping one player locked up on Gronk one-on-one and giving that player safety help on just about every passing play. That will dictate a lot of single-high safety looks for the Packers, forcing the boundary corners into single-coverage on the outside.
Further illustrating the necessity to keep Gronkowski bracketed in double-coverage is a brief discussion I had with Joel Thorman, lead blogger at Arrowhead Pride (the SB Nation blog for the Kansas City Chiefs). I reached out to him because Kansas City held Gronk to his lowest receiving output of the year - two catches for 31 yards and one score in a 41-14 Chiefs win back in week 4. Here's what Joel had to say:
The Chiefs defense has put a priority on stopping the big play so that's the biggest thing. Keep someone locked on (Gronkowski) and provide help. There's really no other way to do it because he's so big he can beat single coverage and Tom Brady knows that.
The other thing that helped the Chiefs quite a bit is owning the time of possession in that game. The Chiefs jumped out to a big lead, forced the Patriots to become one dimensional, then sat back and played defense.
The second point is where the Packers might have a chance - if Aaron Rodgers and company can put points on the board early and often, that will limit the Patriots' offensive strategies. Green Bay has won several games that way this season, though that will likely be a taller order against a quality opponent in New England.
That brings us back to the question of who should be the primary cover man on Gronkowski. Frankly, I don't know if there is a right answer at this point. My guess is that Micah Hyde will be used extensively in that role, as he has matched up with Bears tight end Martellus Bennett twice this year and largely defended him well. He is bigger and more physical than Casey Hayward, he's more natural in coverage than Sean Richardson, and he certainly has better cover skills than any of the linebackers. With Hyde underneath, Morgan Burnett seems the likely help man at safety, with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix manning the deep safety position to which he has become accustomed.
The Patriots' Other Weapons
The key to this plan, though, may not even be the performance of those players defending Gronkowski, but rather Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, and company on the receivers. Last week against Detroit, Tom Brady only completed five passes to Gronkowski (albeit on ten targets), but he did complete eight or more passes to each of three other players - Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and running back Shane Vereen. Then, when the Lions defense keyed on Gronk in the red zone, Brady threw both his touchdown passes to the second tight end, Tim Wright.
With Vereen in the backfield or the slot, the matchups get worse. Hyde (or perhaps Hayward) might be better served in coverage on the smaller, more agile back, which would put one of the linebackers back in coverage on Gronkowski.
In this way, Gronkowski is a much worse matchup nightmare than Jermichael Finley was in his prime with the Packers, though the versatile talents of his Patriots teammates have something to do with that as well. Because defenses must focus so much attention on one player, that opens up opportunities for other receivers and Tom Brady is not the kind of quarterback who will pass up single coverage in favor of frequently forcing passes to a particular receiver when he is being bracketed.
Of course, all of this becomes easier if the Packers' pass rush is able to pressure Brady early and often. Like any quarterback, Brady performs less effectively under pressure, but it's quite astounding to see just how big the difference is for him in 2014. Here are the stats, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
No Pressure: 219/309 (71.1%), 2,384 yards (7.7 Y/A), 23 TDs, 2 INT
Pressure: 53/110 (48.2%), 613 yards (5.6 Y/A), 3 TDs, 4 INT
For the sake of comparison, Aaron Rodgers completes passes at about the same rate as Brady under pressure (45.6%), but has a much better yards per attempt (6.8) and a better TD/INT ratio (6/1).
If that doesn't clearly illustrate the need to get in Brady's face and to get him on the ground, nothing will.
In conclusion, even if Hyde and Burnett or some other combination of Packers are able to limit the throws to the big tight end, the biggest pressure will actually be on the rest of the defense to maintain good coverage one-on-one on the other Patriots receivers and to pressure Tom Brady. If they cannot, Aaron Rodgers and his offense had better put up another 50-point outburst if Green Bay hopes to win on Sunday.