Whether we are talking about a seam route, a backside slant or the simple dig (square-in) across the middle of the field, Gronkowski is unique when it comes to initiating contact, creating leverage and using his frame to shield defenders from the ball.
Too big and too strong—that’s Gronkowski when he gets matched up to linebackers and safeties. Just turn on the tape. It’s all right there. He’s a nightmare for defensive game plans and personnel.
However, when the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX out in Glendale, Arizona, Pete Carroll’s defense can lean on strong safety Kam Chancellor and its coverage schemes to neutralize the tight end on the game’s biggest stage.
Today, let’s discuss three keys for Chancellor and the Seahawks as they start to prep for the Patriots.
No “Free” Releases in Cover 1 (Man-Free)
Watching Gronkowski come off the ball with a clean release versus man coverage drives me crazy when studying the tape. This allows the tight end to establish leverage and pin safeties (or linebackers) at the break point while giving quarterback Tom Brady the ideal matchup every time to work the ball in the middle of the field.
Here’s an example from the Patriots’ Week 15 win over the Dolphins, with Gronkowski running a basic seam route up the field.
This is an excellent ball from Brady as he opens to the weak side of the formation (holds the free safety in the deep middle of the field) before flipping his shoulders/hips to target the seam. But I want to focus on Gronkowski as he gets another free release. That’s not going to cut it from a defensive perspective as the tight end stems up the field and takes advantage of some poor technique on a ball thrown to the upfield shoulder.
Six points. Too easy.
With Chancellor, I’m looking for the safety to walk down over Gronkowski in both the Seahawks’ base and nickel fronts to get hands on the tight end at the release. Given his size (6’3”, 232 lbs) and physical style of play, Chancellor has the ability to attack Gronkowski's chest plate, slide his feet and stay square. Shut down the release, win at the point of attack and tell Brady to go somewhere else with the ball.
I don’t expect Chancellor to win every one-on-one matchup with Gronkowski, but I do believe he can impact the Patriots’ passing game by playing press and challenging the tight end on the release.
There are three “points” to defending every route: release, break and the finish. Chancellor will have to squeeze to Gronkowski's hip on the seam, dig (square-in) and 7 cut (corner) route to put himself in a position to finish on the ball.
It starts with the release. That’s where he can win with a physical approach at the line of scrimmage.
Play Cover 3 “Buzz” and Cover 1 “Robber”
The Seahawks will utilize Chancellor underneath in both zone and man coverage by dropping the safety as a “hook” defender or a “robber.” Looking at the Patriots offense, this will allow the Seahawks to jump the inside dig route and squat on the seam (play the sticks), depending on the down-and-distance situation.
In straight Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under), Chancellor will play the curl-flat drop. This is when the safety drops to the top of the numbers (depth of 10-12 yards), works through the curl and widens with any threat to the flat. However, in 3 “Buzz,” Chancellor replaces inside as a “hook” defender.
Take a look at the diagram I drew up with the Seahawks showing a two-high safety alignment:
Here, Chancellor can take away the Hi-Lo concepts from the Patriots (two-level read inside) or drop to the sticks on a third-and-long situation to cushion the seam (carry), with Thomas playing in the post.
Cover 1 “Robber” is very similar for Chancellor as an inside defender (or “Rover”) with the Seahawks playing man coverage across the board. I really like the idea of Chancellor dropping down, with linebacker K.J. Wright matching up to Gronkowski from an outside-leverage position. This would allow Chancellor to drive any crossing route or jump the dig to Gronkowski, with Thomas again protecting over the top.
The point with both of these defensive schemes is to put Chancellor in the middle of the field to cushion the seam and eliminate any inside-breaking concepts while projecting the sticks on third downs versus Gronkowski.
Take Away the Red-Zone Slant (And Fade)
When the Patriots bring Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) on the field in the deep red zone (10-yard line), and remove Gronkowski to the backside of the 3x1 formation, the tight end is the No. 1 target.
There should be an automatic alert to the slant and fade, with the Patriots creating a true one-on-one matchup for Gronkowski. This is also called a “Dakota” formation as it isolates Gronkowski as the backside “X” receiver (“X-Iso”).
Here’s a look at the formation and alignment from the Patriots’ divisional-playoff win over the Ravens, with Gronkowski to the backside of a 3x1:
The Ravens are bringing zero pressure (no free safety help in the middle of the field), but Cover 1 (man-free) isn’t going to make that much of a difference as the free safety will be late to the ball on the slant and can’t impact the fade.
Defensive back coaches in the NFL teach their safeties to take away the slant by alignment (inside shade) and reaction to the fade (drive to the hip, locate the ball). However, Gronkowski will widen the defender with a quick, outside stem and then break inside on the slant. Once he creates leverage on the break, the safety is toast, as he can’t drive through the tight end to play the ball.
Chancellor must use that initial alignment to gain an advantage versus the slant and stay square through that quick outside stem. This will allow the Seahawks’ strong safety to jam on the release, hold that inside position and break on the ball.
Think formation recognition first as Chancellor goes through his pre-snap checklist. That’s No. 1 on the list, followed by the technique to take away the slant versus Gronkowski.
It takes rare talent at the safety position to limit Gronkowski because of his size and skill set, but it still comes down to technique. It always does. Challenge the release, slide the feet and play with the proper technique to finish.
That’s not easy to do every rep versus Gronkowski, and he will make some plays versus the Seattle defense. But when I watch tape on Chancellor and study the physical approach he brings to the stadium, the strong safety gives the Seahawks the opportunity to use multiple schemes to neutralize Gronkowski.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.