When the Indianapolis Colts square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday night, they’ll face quite a defensive dilemma. Simply put, how can they defend against the Patriots’ All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (i.e. “Gronk”) in coverage.
The muscular 6’6″, 265, athletic freak at tight end boasts a 4.68 forty time, with soft hands. Unfortunately for the Colts, their defense lacks a dynamic defender, who is both big and fast enough to cover Gronkowski at either the linebacker or safety position. To be fair though, not many defenses really have that kind of defender either.
"“Imagine trying to cover that,” Brady said. “He just gets great body position, and I think that’s a big part of it because he’s such a big guy, it’s hard to go through him. He’s 6-7, 260 pounds, so if he can get himself in the right position and get the defender where he wants him in the right place in the route, the defender can’t do anything about it. And I think they know that, too, so then they panic, and then when they panic, it’s even more of an advantage to the offense. Sometimes when you get a bigger receiver on the perimeter and a smaller [defensive back] is matched up on him, the mindset of the DB might even change because they think, ‘Oh my God, this guy is so much bigger and taller and stronger and what am I going to do?’ And then they’re already beat sometimes before the ball is snapped.”"
Patriots’ All-Pro Cornerback Darrelle Revis re-echoed his sentiment:
"“I wouldn’t blame them for panicking,” Revis said. “The guy is 6-foot-7, he can run, he’s explosive. I mean, you put him in that category of Tony Gonzalez, they just have big bodies, hard to get around them, sometimes if you might break you might not know where the ball is going to be at, his wingspan, he will stick his hand in the air. There’s so many variables, it’s just hard to cover a big receiver/tight end like that.”"
With the odds seemingly stacked against the Colts in successfully defending Gronkowski, we look at some possible defensive scenarios:
ILB Jerrell Freeman
Oct 20, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
The Colts’ unheralded linebacker has quietly been one of the NFL’s best linebackers in coverage during his first 2+ seasons in the league. According to ProFootballFocus (subscription), his +3.5 rating in coverage effectively places him as the 9th best ILB overall in that regard. However, even Ray Lewis in his prime likely would have struggled defending Gronkowski one-on-one. Freeman is surprisingly quick for his position, but at a listed 240 lbs, he’s giving up 20 pounds to Gronkowski in coverage and isn’t quite as agile.
Best Scenario: The Colts’ defense aligns Freeman, and not D’Qwell Jackson (who struggles in coverage), to whatever side of the formation Gronkowski is set at. However, instead of leaving Freeman one-on-one with Gronkowski, the Colts’ defense shadows Gronkowski with a safety over the top. Unfortunately, this leaves a Colts cornerback (bottom) potentially on an island, one-on-one in man coverage without much safety help. It’s a task that the Colts’ lockdown cornerback Vontae Davis could likely handle, but one that Greg Toler may prove to struggle with.
Oct 9, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis (22) against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Worst Case Scenario: If it’s Freeman, or even worse…D’Qwell Jackson, the Colts can’t afford to have Gronkowski isolated one-on-one with any linebacker on the outside, particularly in the red zone. He’s simply too big, too strong, and too fast.
This is quite possibly the “doomsday scenario” for the Colts because it may be the toughest of all of the looks the Patriots may feature with Gronkowski to defend. The Colts’ defense lacks a dynamic athlete to play Gronkowski one-on-one on the outside, and the rest of the defense can’t afford to have a safety placed over the top in that situation, as it would open up some clear holes over the middle.
While I’m against Vontae Davis lining up against Gronkowski for most of the evening, this is the one situation where with Gronkowski isolated on the outside, that the Colts may consider rolling the dice with their talented young lockdown cornerback. Although Davis is 30 pounds lighter than Gronkowski, unlike Freeman, he offers superior speed and ball skills.
Overall: The Colts’ defense can’t expect any single defender to play one-on-one with Gronkowski exclusively and be widely successful come Sunday night. To me, it would make the most sense to have Freeman “flex” to Gronkowsi’s side of the formation with safety help over the top. This may put more responsibility and pressure on your cornerbacks with less safety help and one-on-one man coverage in individual match-ups, but it seems like a role that Vontae Davis would still very well flourish in and quite frankly, he has all season.
This is why I’m against him following around Gronkowski for the evening. Put Vontae Davis one-on-one in man coverage on the outside against one of the Patriots wide receivers and let him “take them away” without safety help. The Colts can then use his safety help instead, to help better shadow Gronkowski over the middle with either Mike Adams or Sergio Brown.
Nov 18, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) reacts after his touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts 59-24. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
However, as seen in Example 2, if the Patriots are going to isolate Gronkowski on the outside like a wide receiver, this is one of the few instances where it may be ideal to match-up Vontae Davis against him. No Colts’ linebacker is athletic enough to defend Gronkowski one-on-one on the outside without safety help. While Davis may get beat from a strength standpoint, he still boasts superior speed and ball skills to any Colts’ linebacker.
The speed bump lies in that the Colts have to show some flexibility with their defense, which remains unclear if they’re willing to do. Vontae Davis has predominantly aligned on the right side of the Colts’ defensive formation regardless of the opposing wide receiver match-up all season. D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman have remained relatively fixed on their ILB sides.
However, for this match-up, I’d like to see Jerrell Freeman aligned to the same side of the formation as Rob Gronkowski, with Vontae Davis as the cornerback wide on this side too, as he won’t need as much safety help. Rather, his safety help can be largely given to Freeman over the middle. This may be wishful thinking from a defensive strategy standpoint, but it stands to make the most sense logically.
Dec 22, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) intercepts a pass intended for Kansas City Chiefs tight end Anthony Fasano (80) during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. The Colts won 23-7. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports