Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how New England coach Bill Belichick would defend his own talented tight end, Rob Gronkowski, if faced with that challenge?
Last season against New Orleans, Belichick assigned his best cornerback, Aqib Talib, on Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. When Talib exited after one half due to an injury, cornerback Kyle Arrington drew the assignment. Graham didn’t have one catch. Yeah, a donut. And Arrington had an interception.
The Indianapolis Colts have studied the film and know from past experience how Gronkowski can wreck any defense. They have an excellent cover corner in Vontae Davis, whose sixth NFL season has been his best.
But would head coach Chuck Pagano be willing to take a strategic page from Belichick’s playbook and put Davis on “Gronk” when the two AFC rivals meet Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium?
If not, then what will the Colts do with a tight end who has 49 receptions for 663 yards and, most importantly, eight touchdown catches?
It’s worth reminding the Colts have allowed opposing tight ends to catch six touchdown passes in nine games. Denver’s Julius Thomas had three of those in the opener. The Colts had linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman on Thomas for the first two scores, then the tight end shoved aside safety LaRon Landry for the third TD.
The question of covering a special pass catcher has been asked of defensive experts for years. Buddy Ryan, architect of the Chicago Bears’ famous 4-6 defense, was posed the question seven years ago. Ryan said the key was to keep the pass catcher guessing on each play about if he was drawing a double team, from where it was coming or have his head on a swivel looking for other players to assist by hitting him when he crossed over the middle.
The player in question was Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss.
It’s relevant analysis because that’s exactly how Belichick has handled blocking Colts pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis through the years. He tried to keep them guessing about double teams, whether a tight end or running back or even both would help the offensive tackle subdue the pass rushers.
Pagano offered some Xs and Os Monday on the difficulty of matching up with Gronkowski. If the Colts use a nickel package and put a safety or cornerback on him, they might be susceptible to the run and he’s strong enough to shove those guys aside or at the very least knock them off balance. Use a linebacker and Gronkowski has shown he can run away from those guys. Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, so it only takes a second or two of separation.
“You’ve got to figure out a way to find a balance,” Pagano said of defensive packages.
And in summation, he said what Ryan and others have done in the past.
“Then you’ve got to mix things up,” Pagano said.
So what about a constant double team?
“Sometimes they’ll even double team the cat and he’ll have a chance to get free, and that’s what he does,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday. “He’s a talented tight end that gets vertical. he can stem out of breaks and bursts, and he’s got great hands catching the ball.”
If the Colts decide to rely on double teams with any frequency, here’s another example of recent history, again taken from Belichick.
When Colts tight end Dallas Clark emerged as capable playmaker, Belichick used a two-tier double team to slow him down. A linebacker had Clark near the line of scrimmage and his job was to be as physical as possible before letting him go.
When Clark got past the linebacker, safety Rodney Harrison was there to blanket him. The plan was effective.
Colts safety Sergio Brown is starting his sixth consecutive game. While the Colts won’t say this, Brown is better in pass defense than Landry, who is more physical but hasn’t played up to his 2012 Pro Bowl form since joining the Colts last season.
Will the Colts often use Brown to shadow Gronkowski on deeper routes with a linebacker underneath, as Belichick once did with Clark?
How the Colts handle “Gronk” will be one of if not the most compelling challenge Sunday night.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.