Seahawks Must Slow NFL’s Best Tight End
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll knows the formidable challenge ahead: controlling New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
During a recent press briefing, Carroll admitted to dedicating a portion of his day to reviewing clips of Gronk (edited videos focusing solely on plays involving a specific player or theme) in an effort to develop the most effective strategy for handling the tight end based on his own team’s strengths.
Carroll pointed out a compelling reason to be optimistic about his defense’s ability to rise to the occasion.
He emphasized that outside linebackers KJ Wright and Bruce Irvin possess impressive height and reach, while Kam Chancellor stands out as one of the most physically imposing solid safeties in the league.
KJ Wright chimed in, expressing confidence in their abilities, stating, “Our best against their best. Of course, I’ve got my money on Kam. He’s an All-Pro; he’s the captain of our defense. I expect him to win every battle.”
Carroll refrained from making such a bold statement, acknowledging that Tom Brady will likely succeed in connecting with Gronk, but emphasized the importance of not letting the duo dominate the game.
The Seahawks’ defense has demonstrated remarkable proficiency in covering tight ends throughout the season.
The blemish on their record dates back to 2014 when Antonio Gates secured seven catches for 96 yards, including three touchdowns, early in the season.
Since then, Seattle has refined their approach and made significant strides in challenging life for opposing tight ends.
As Carroll pointed out, a substantial portion of this success can be attributed to having the correct type of players to counter what is typically the most prominent and tallest eligible receiver an offense can field.
Standing at 6’4″, KJ Wright’s exceptional effectiveness against tight ends is further enhanced by his remarkably long arms.
This attribute enables him to engage the tight end at the line of scrimmage without getting as close as most other linebackers, thereby avoiding vulnerability to a push-off, a box-out, or other physical battles by a taller opponent.
Employing a jam tactic effectively slows down the tight end’s progress as he seeks to establish his route, disrupting the play’s timing.
Sufficient initial disruption allows the linebacker to compel the quarterback to consider alternative options in his progressions, diverting him from his preferred target.
Having length at the linebacker position is akin to possessing a formidable jab in boxing; it allows for disruption from a distance.
Wright possesses a unique physique for executing this skill, although Gronk has demonstrated proficiency in exploiting players who invite physical contact, using their aggressiveness to his advantage.
Even if Wright (or Irvin) doesn’t maintain tight coverage on Gronk throughout the entire route, the quality of their initial jamming work against the imposing tight end could wield significant influence in this game.
Furthermore, the Seahawks’ defense benefits from having multiple players on their roster capable of applying pressure on a tight end.
They’ve displayed various defensive looks to counter tight end-centric offenses this season.
This diversity in approach means that the Patriots should find it challenging to predict the strategy against Gronk.
At times, Seattle positions Chancellor in off-coverage against the tight end (as illustrated below).
On occasions, KJ Wright lines up directly over the tight end, aiming to disrupt the initial phase of the route and provide coverage downfield, as illustrated below.
At times, Chancellor and Wright position themselves off the ball, concealing which of them is responsible for the tight end, keeping the assignment uncertain until after the snap.
This versatile and dynamic approach to tight end coverage has proven to be a significant challenge for teams featuring accomplished tight ends, such as the Cowboys with Jason Witten, the Broncos with Julius Thomas, and the Panthers with Greg Olsen, limiting their productivity.
While they may not have showcased it frequently this season, the Seahawks will likely also employ a strategy involving two players to cover Gronk, potentially utilizing Chancellor and KJ Wright.
Entrusting any one player to handle Gronk for extended periods has not yielded favorable results for others.
While Seattle boasts a formidable roster, they are unlikely to rely solely on this tactic to carry their Super Bowl aspirations, recognizing the difficulty of accomplishing something that has eluded others.
Conversely, the Patriots might look to the San Diego Chargers game as a reference point.
In that matchup, the Chargers employed bunch formations, rub routes, and motion plays to secure a clean release for Antonio Gates, effectively nullifying Seattle’s jamming efforts.
Furthermore, Philip Rivers demonstrated exceptional skill in identifying when Cam was left in one-on-one coverage against Antonio Gates after the snap.
When you manage to isolate players like Gates or Rob against smaller defensive backs, even if they’re relatively tall, as a quarterback, all you need to do is deliver a high pass and let the larger tight end use his body positioning to gain the upper hand against the defender.
Tom Brady must rapidly assess the defense after the snap, capitalizing on those moments when the matchup or positioning is in their favor.
Given Seattle’s heightened focus on this aspect of the Patriots’ offense, opportunities may be scarce. However, when they do arise, the Patriots must capitalize on them.
The significance of this matchup lies in the potential challenge that Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman present in limiting the opportunities for Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell.
This situation mirrors what the Packers encountered in the NFC championship game with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, where they managed only 133 receiving yards and one touchdown—below their regular-season average of 175 yards and nearly two touchdowns per game.
Rob Gronkowski is now the crucial player who can weaken the Seahawks’ renowned defense.
The bigger, longer, stronger tight end will always have the advantage, regardless of how many large, powerful, long-armed, and athletic linebackers you have.
While the tight end already knows where he’s heading, the defense is reactive.
The Patriots are up against the most formidable defense of the year.
Their key to victory is exploiting the Seattle defense with their top offensive weapon.
Seattle is well aware of this and is gearing up accordingly. This showdown between two powerhouse teams will significantly influence who emerges with the championship rings in the spring.