PHOENIX — New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowksi is a matchup nightmare for just about any NFL defense. He is big, powerful and surprisingly elusive. He is the most effective pass-catching target for quarterback Tom Brady.
But the defense of the Seattle Seahawks has made it abundantly clear that it is not just any NFL defense. It made its claim for being regarded as historically great when it dominated quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in last season’s Super Bowl. The Seahawks led the NFL in total defense again this season.
The presence of dynamic, do-everything safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas makes the Seahawks better equipped than anyone else in the league to deal with Gronkowski. That sets the stage for a significant subplot to Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“That’s their playmaker,” Chancellor said. “That’s their go-to guy. They’re definitely going to try and target him a lot, try to get him the ball in the game. We just have to play our defense, play our calls. Whatever Coach [defensive coordinator Dan Quinn] calls, we just have to go out there and be fundamentally sound.”
Gronkowski’s value to the New England offense is clear. After two injury-filled seasons, he played 15 games during the regular season, his most in a season since 2011. He had 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” Brady said.
Gronkowski is fast enough to outrun most linebackers and many safeties who attempt to cover him. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, if an opponent attempts to use a cornerback to try to defend him, he generally is too strong.
“He’s a big guy,” Thomas said. “We understand how they want to use him and we have to use our knowledge to our advantage.”
Seahawks nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane, who also could spend some time Sunday covering Gronkowski, created a bit of a stir last week when he told reporters he didn’t think Gronkowski is that good, describing him as “okay.” If that opinion is shared by other members of the Seattle secondary, they haven’t said so. They have been complimentary of Gronkowski this week.
Gronkowski likewise has had good things to say about the Seattle defense.
“They’re very, very good,” Gronkowski said. “They’re very, very talented — very, very tough mentally and physically. Probably one of the best defenses out there, if not the best defense. We’ve got to go out there and prepare and we’ve got to be ready.”
When Brady tries to find Gronkowski downfield, looking for seams in the Seattle secondary over the middle of the field, the burden for defending him will fall to Chancellor or Thomas. The Seahawks’ defensive backs are known for their physical play, even in an era in which changes to NFL rules have made playing such a style increasingly difficult. Seattle defenders have stressed the need to match Gronkowski’s ruggedness.
“He definitely is a big, physical guy,” Chancellor said earlier this week. “But it’s just big on big. Just play big on big.”
That should be no problem for Chancellor, who has a reputation for delivering forceful hits in the secondary. Chancellor grew up admiring the play of Sean Taylor and has spoken of watching highlights of the late Washington Redskins safety before each game that he plays.
“I definitely like to be physical,” Chancellor said. “I like making contact. I like big blows. I like making game-changing hits. I get that from watching guys like Sean Taylor. It just pumps me up and gets me ready to make game-changing hits.”
It is a clash from which neither side is likely to back down.
“You always want to play against the best,” Gronkowski said. “This is what the Super Bowl is played for, going against the best.”
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