Gronkowski Provides Menacing Test

Green Bay's defense has been improving but it will face an enormous challenge with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has 58 catches for 812 yards and nine touchdowns as one of Tom Brady's top targets. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Micah Hyde has seen the film of New England's Rob Gronkowski, and he is understandably impressed.

The Green Bay Packers safety would be just fine if didn't have to cover the Patriots' 6-foot-6 behemoth of a tight end.

Unfortunately for Hyde, this likely will not be the case come Sunday when the Packers' improving defense tries to fend off Gronkowski and the high-scoring New England Patriots.

"Well, have you seen him on TV? These tight ends nowadays are freaks of nature," the 6-foot Hyde said Wednesday after practice. "I don't know exactly what he is, but he's a tall guy, weighs a lot, steel jaw ... so it's another challenge for us."

Gronkowski has been torturing defenses for years. So far this season, Gronkowski has 58 catches for 812 yards and nine touchdowns as one of Tom Brady's top targets.

It's been a while since Green Bay and New England have met. Last time around, Gronkowski caught one pass for 25 yards in the Patriots' 31-27 victory on Dec. 19 in the tight end's 2010 rookie season.

Gronkowski is now a full-fledged star, part of a generation of tight ends including New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and Denver's Julius Thomas who are redefining the position.

"What they've done for the position is unique. It's definitely a multidimensional position now," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was a tight end himself while playing at NAIA school Baker University in Kansas in the late 1980s.

"The way the position has transcended — it's been really neat," McCarthy said.

Not for defenses, though. Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare.

"I've had (a) safety, linebacker, corner covering me before. So you always have to be prepared for anything that happens, for anyone to cover me," Gronkowski said.

For the Packers, the responsibility could fall to Hyde or fellow safety HaHa Clinton-Dix. Star linebacker Clay Matthews might also be an option because of his athleticism, though that would deprive the Packers of having their top pass-rushing threat close to the line of scrimmage.

"I didn't go to the coach and say, 'I want him,'" Hyde said of defending Gronkowski. "But at the same time, I think it will be fun."

The second-year player is emerging in the secondary for the Packers, who will likely open again with five defensive backs. Hyde and Clinton-Dix are a tandem at free safety, often on the field at the same time; Morgan Burnett is the strong safety.

It is a position that has had dramatic improvement since last season. Hyde has two interceptions and a sack in his last three games. Clinton-Dix has played well in his rookie season, and he's third on the team with 61 tackles.

The Packers lead the league in turnover differential, having secured 23 takeaways to just eight giveaways. That's in part due to the excellent play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has 30 touchdown passes to just three interceptions.

But the defense, too, has answered McCarthy's call for more playmakers. The Packers have become stingier after Matthews was asked to play more inside linebacker three weeks ago. After roaring to big leads in its last two home games, Green Bay can home in on defending the pass.

Few offenses pose challenges like the one offered by the Patriots. While Gronkowski is important, Hyde said the key is to stay disciplined against a team with so many weapons.

"They've got slot guys, they've got guys outside, they've got backs, and then the quarterback to make it all go," Hyde said. "So a lot of weapons, we have got to be fundamentally sound."

Find Genaro C. Armas on Twitter at twitter.com/GArmasAP.


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