Covering Rob Gronkowski won't be a one-man job for Ravens defense

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was absent from the Ravens' last postseason meeting with the Patriots, and injured the time before that.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was absent from the Ravens' last postseason meeting with the Patriots, and injured the time before that. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Standing at his locker, Ravens free safety Will Hill's usually stoic face broke into a grin when the topic of covering New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was broached.

Gronkowski is so formidable physically that he routinely bulldozes through opposing defensive backs. Despite his significant height and bulk at 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski is fast enough to create separation against much smaller defenders.


His size, speed, hands and crisp routes have allowed Gronkowski to establish himself as a matchup nightmare.

"Nobody, I mean nobody on planet Earth, can cover Rob Gronkowski," said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, an analyst for Inside the NFL on Showtime.


While respectful of Gronkowski's prowess, Hill didn't sound like a man shying away from the challenge as the Ravens prepare for Saturday's AFC divisional round playoff game. If anything, Hill is eager to test his skills against an All-Pro tight end who had 82 catches for 1,124 yards and a dozen touchdowns this season.

"I hope so, it's like, 'What are we here for?'" Hill said. "We're in the NFL to be at our best and go against the best, and he's one of the best. I have to be at my best against him, so I would love that.

"It's not just a one-man job, it's a team effort. He's not a slow guy. If you try to play off him, you're just giving him what he needs. If you play up, he has the strength to get through people. He's a beast. He has a lot of aggression."

The Ravens have recent experience dealing with elite tight ends, having competed against New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham during a November road win. They freely acknowledge there's really no one quite like Gronkowski, though. A fun-loving 25-year-old known for his hard-partying ways, Gronkowski is also extremely serious about perfecting his craft on the field.

When healthy, which hasn't always been the case in recent years, Gronkowski has practically been unstoppable. In five NFL seasons, Gronkowski has caught 308 passes for 4,379 yards and scored 54 touchdowns to emerge as quarterback Tom Brady's favorite target.

By catching his 50th touchdown pass this season in his 59th career game, Gronkowski tied former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss as the second-fastest player to reach that milestone. They rank behind Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth, who scored 50 touchdowns in his first 54 games.

Gronkowski has developed into an all-purpose threat capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, including the red zone, where Brady frequently lobs him the football.

"I think Rob has worked really hard on all areas of his game: running game, passing game and all the things involved with that, red area, play action, third down, different locations that he's been aligned in, in the backfield, on the line, flexed outside," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He's developed a lot of different aspects to his game. He'll just try to continue to be able to threaten the defense in different ways.

"I think he's improved in all those little things and a variety of things so he has different tools that he can use to try to help himself. He's really worked hard to study those areas, improve his techniques and he's in good physical condition. He's a hard-working guy."

It's no secret how much enjoyment Gronkowski takes in mauling defenders after the catch. He's left a crowd of fallen opponents in his wake.

"He's one of the best," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's big. He's fast. He's tough. He's nasty. He gets the ball in his hands and he wants to punish people. Run after catch, he's trying to run everybody he can over. He's just a gifted guy, and they get him the ball, and they get him the ball quickly, and they give him the ball downfield.

"He's unique in the sense that he's so big and so fast. He has a unique ability to beat coverage, and there really are not too many matchups you can put on him, zone or man. I guess you could bracket him and put him in a vice, kind of like you do on punt, but he's just a big, strong, fast guy. He has great hands. He's tough. He's very unique."


While the Ravens held Graham to six catches for 47 yards and two touchdowns and Hill undercut a pass by Drew Brees intended for Graham and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown, Graham is a 6-7, 265-pound converted former basketball player who relies more on finesse than the brutish style Gronkowski favors.

"They are different style of guys," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "They are both big, talented tight ends. They flex them out, both. The biggest thing with Rob is the fact that he's just so big and can body you up. The problem with him in a seam route is he's so big, Tom is going to put it up over your head and let him go get it.

"That's always going to be the problem. He's a guy that if you contact him downfield, he's generally going to win, because he's going to knock down a 190-pound guy, as big as he is. There's a way to play him, and we have to do a great job of doing that."

During the matchup with Graham, Hill got assistance from Pro Bowl rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Mosley didn't excel against Graham, giving up three receptions for 24 yards on three targets. Mosley had similar issues with San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, surrendering three catches for 21 yards on four targets.

"If I'm on him, I'm going to do my best to cover him, and whoever else is on him is going to do their best," Mosley said. "We just have to try our best to execute and win each play."

In previous regular season games against the Ravens, Gronkowski hasn't been a big factor. He has three receptions for 45 yards in those meetings.

In a 23-20 AFC championship game win over the Ravens following the 2011 season, Gronkowski was dominating the Ravens with five catches for 87 yards on eight targets before suffering an ankle injury on a tackle by former safety Bernard Pollard. Gronkowski returned in the fourth quarter, but wasn't targeted again.

Gronkowski was sidelined in the postseason last year due to injuries, so he's looking forward to playing the Ravens.

"They're big, and very physical," Gronkowski told New England reporters. "You just can't go out there and be soft. They're always physically and mentally ready. It's going to be tough, no doubt."

That's the Ravens' expectation, too. And their plan involves getting a sound jam at the line of scrimmage to prevent Gronkowski from dashing into his patterns without interference.

The Ravens' oft-maligned secondary has upgraded its play in recent games. That includes Hill roughing up Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller during a wild-card playoff win last Saturday and strong safety Darian Stewart intercepting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"We're coming together at the right time," Stewart said. "We know Gronkowski bodies up smaller defenders. He's trying to bully people. He's good at it and he has the quarterback to get him the ball.

"We've got to be very physical with him. It takes the whole squad to stop him. You have to know where he's at all times. I don't see how you would be able to miss him. We know what he's capable of."



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