Don't get Gronk'd!
That's my best advice for the Baltimore Ravens this weekend as they go to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots. That's easier said than done. Rob Gronkowski is a physical freak, and even after several injuries in the last few seasons, he is still one of the league's most unfair matchups offensively, by far. People will give you a lot of reasons why the Patriots rebounded after a dreadful loss to the Chiefs earlier this season, but I'd just hand you Gronk's stat sheet.
Gronkowski didn't have a game with more than 44 yards receiving in the first four weeks of the season. From that point on, he only had two games with less than 71 yards receiving (I don't count the Week 17 game that the Patriots treated like a preseason contest). In six of the 11 games after that Week 4 loss, he had at least 94 yards receiving. Did I mention the Patriots only lost one game after the 41-14 drubbing by the Chiefs, aside from the meaningless last game of the season?
There is one thing we all can agree on about the Patriots' offense: when Gronk is healthy and balling, they are damn near impossible to defend.
The Ravens, on the other hand, weren't all that great against the pass statistically during the regular season, giving up almost 249 yards a game through the air. That was good enough for only 23rd in the league. Interestingly enough, they didn't really let any tight ends get loose on them though this season.
Probable future first ballot Hall of Famer Antonio Gates had the best day against them all season with seven catches for 83 yards in a week 13 loss to the Chargers, but that's about it. Against Pro Bowl tight ends Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen, they gave up six catches for 47 and two touchdowns and two catches and 30 yards, respectively, in wins over the Saints and Panthers. Whatever other problems they had in coverage, shutting down tight ends wasn't one of them this season. This should be a great matchup.
As for the one on one (or two or three) matchups that Gronk will see against the Ravens, the one I'm looking forward to watching the most is when Ravens safety Will Hill lines up across from him. Hill has had his problems with passing league drug tests in the past, almost to the point where he had just about smoked himself out the NFL, but that kid is an animal on the field. He plays with great instincts an anticipation and is a physical specimen at 6'1, 207 pounds. He can run like a deer while retaining the ability to lay the #BLAAAAAAAM down on much larger players.
Will Hill (No. 33) laying the boom. Photo credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
You watch him on coaches' film and you can just see his swagger jumping off the screen. The kid ain't scared of anything -- except maybe a plastic cup. I keed I keed -- for better or worse and I imagine he is chomping at the bit to show what he can do against Gronkowski. As the great philosopher Rick Flair once said, "To be the man you have to beat the man!" and there isn't any bigger challenge for an NFL safety than trying to matchup with a healthy Gronk. On the road. In the playoffs.
This is where names get made or slayed, and by the end of the game Saturday I have a feeling Hill will play himself into either being the hero, or the goat.
Another factor may be how much Gronk has to stay in and try to help block Ravens outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The more Suggs and Dumervil are wreaking havoc in the backfield the less likely the Patriots are going to (if they're smart) keep sending Gronk out on routes, leaving their offensive tackles exposed. I'm sure that had a lot to do with some of those other tight ends the Ravens faced this season having paltry numbers in those games.
Now to recap in over half of the games the Patriots played after Week 4*, Gronkowski had 94 yards receiving or more. The Ravens' defense, on the other hand, didn't allow a single tight end to gain more than 83 yards on them all season. Also, that 83-yard performance just so happened to occur in a game the Ravens lost to the Chargers. One of only six losses the Ravens had on the season.
So in light of all that is the Ravens' defense vs. Rob Gronkowski the most important matchup of the game? Yeah, I would say so.
I'm going to say the Patriots will need at least 95 yards receiving from Gronkowski to win Saturday. It doesn't really matter if he scores or not because just the fact he is torching the Ravens is going to force them to start shading their coverage to Gronk, which will open things up for the other skill position players on offense. If the Ravens, as a unit on defense, can keep Gronk under 95 yards receiving I just don't see how the Patriots will be able to get their offense going enough to score enough points to win the game.
Its really that simple.
*I don't count the last game which the Patriots treated like a preseason contest.