The Denver Broncos have a tough matchup in Week 9 as they travel to play the New England Patriots. In a battle for AFC supremacy, most of the coverage is going to focused on the duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks—and for good reason.
Both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are going to give their teams plenty to cheer for, but there is another player on the Patriots roster that could create plenty of big plays for his squad.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the best in the game today. After battling back from injuries sustained last year, Gronkowski was first eased into the lineup at the beginning of the season. Now, he’s back to his normal role—and he’s back to his dominating ways.
Broncos head coach John Fox knows his defense will face a tough challenge against the Patriots on Sunday.
“They’re not afraid to pump it at you and do it in a hurry-up-offense style, especially at their place because they don’t have any crowd noise deterrents. A couple years ago, they ran it all over us. I don’t remember how many yards it was but it was a lot.” Fox concluded, “So it’ll be a huge test and those guys will have to execute like they have over the last month.”
The Broncos defense is playing at a high level this year, but they still struggle to slow down elite tight ends like Gronkowski.
|Broncos Advanced Stats vs. Opposing Tight Ends|
|Category||NFL rank||NFL average|
|Successful Play Percentage||51.7 %||6th highest||43.8 %|
|ESPN Stats & Inc.|
As we look at the season stats for tight ends who have played the Broncos this year, we see big performances most weeks.
|Tight Ends vs. Broncos in 2014|
|ESPN Stats & Inc.|
How can the Broncos shut down—or at least slow down—Gronkowski in Week 9? Let’s take a look at possible candidates who could be tasked with covering Gronkowski on Sunday.
The Broncos middle linebacker has improved in coverage over his four-year pro career. Irving was drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft with the idea that he would be a quality starting middle linebacker someday.
Irving took some time to reach that expected level. He failed to win the middle linebacker job last year, but he provided the team a solid presence as a reserve strong-side linebacker behind Von Miller.
He showed the ability to stuff the run, and as last season went on his nose for the ball aided him in coverage as well.
Here we see the first target for Antonio Gates in Week 8 against the Broncos. Irving brings down Gates quickly for a mere three-yard gain. His size gives him the ability to bring a big player like Gates down forcefully and immediately after the catch.
The young linebacker plays with a mean streak and a chip on his shoulder.
After the San Diego Chargers game on the No BS Broncos Post Game Show, Marshall told me that he wanted to be used in coverage more. “I wish I would have covered [Antonio Gates] more. I didn’t allow him to catch a single pass.”
This picture shows Marshall lined up in space as Gates runs toward him. This pass on 2nd-and-8 falls incomplete due to Marshall’s coverage.
Marshall timed his move well and arrived at the play as the ball was coming in. It was perfect timing as he broke up the play, but he did not draw a pass interference penalty.
The first—and arguably best—free-agent addition for the Broncos this year was Ward. His toughness and fearless nature have been contagious for the rest of the defense. Ward’s nickname is “Boss,” and he lives up to the name and then some.
Ward can play in the box and close to the line of scrimmage in order to help stuff the run. He arrives at the ball with natural violence, and his big hits can cause turnovers. Ward is fantastic as a run defender, but he’s known to struggle in coverage at times.
Gates scored two touchdowns against the Broncos in Week 8—both of them on Ward. Philip Rivers targeted Gates here in this 2nd-and-goal situation. The pass was overthrown here, and it fell incomplete.
Two plays later, Gates was able to box out Ward in the end zone for an easy touchdown. Ward was calling for an offensive pass interference penalty, but his antics were denied.
In the fourth quarter, Rivers targeted Gates on a corner route near the front pylon for a touchdown. Ward was step-for-step with Gates, but the pass was perfectly thrown for another score.
There may be a few plays where Ward is covering Gronkowski one-on-one, but the Broncos would be wise to limit those opportunities.
We’ve seen Moore regain his health and his confidence this season. Moore already has three interceptions this season, equaling the total he had in the previous two seasons combined.
The Chargers targeted Gates once in the red zone where Moore ended up covering him. As you can see here, Moore swoops in and knocks the would-be touchdown pass away from the talented tight end.
Mike Klis, from The Denver Post, told me in an interview on my ESPN Radio show that we could see a combination—which included Moore—to cover the All-Pro tight end.
“Brandon Marshall is a possibility. Rahim Moore is a possibility. Maybe they bracket those two guys, letting [Aqib] Talib and [Chris] Harris go one-on-one with the receivers on the outside.”
Moore has the athleticism—and attitude—to cover Gronkowski if need be.
After missing two years with a knee injury, Carter is back in action this season. He was a solid player for the Broncos in the 2011 playoffs with an interception in each playoff game that year (Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots).
Carter can line up at either strong or free safety for the Broncos. When Denver wants to use Ward as a middle linebacker in sub-packages, Carter can come on the field to take his spot at strong safety. He’s a big hitter who can patrol in the box against the run, but he also has the athleticism to cover athletic move tight ends.
In the game against the Chargers, Carter did line up against Gates on occasion. In this picture we see him lined up covering Gates on the outside left of the formation.
This pass falls incomplete on 3rd-and-7, but Carter committed a defensive pass interference penalty which moved the chains for the Chargers.
Carter has the athleticism and aggressive play style to match up against Gronkowski on occasion.
Last year, as a member of the Patriots, Talib was given the assignment of covering New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Not only did Talib cover him—he held Graham without a catch. Graham was targeted six times in that contest, but he failed to come down with the football on any of those passes.
Talib might be the best option for the Broncos when going up against Gronkowski. He knows that covering Gronkowski presents a great challenge.
“He’s 6'7", 200 and who knows what. And then he can run like a wild dog man. Great hands, great catch radius. He’s one of the top tight ends in the league.” Talib emphasized, “He knows how to play the game of football and then on top of that, he’s got a great quarterback throwing him the ball.”
Talib may be covering his former teammate at times on Sunday. If he does, then the Broncos would have to feel like they have an advantage in those situations given Talib’s history of covering guys like Gronkowski.
The Broncos will have their hands full covering Gronkowski this week. He crushed the Chicago Bears last week with nine catches, 149 yards and three receiving touchdowns. The Broncos are game-planning to prevent that type of performance from happening two weeks in a row.
Linebackers like Irving and Marshall could see some snaps against the talented tight end. Both have better coverage ability than some think, but their snaps against Gronkowski should be limited.
Safeties like Ward, Moore or Carter should be involved in covering Gronkowski. Ward may not get many one-on-one assignments against Gronkowski given his struggles in coverage. Carter might also see limited solo assignments versus the Patriots superstar. Moore has the best athleticism to cover Gronkowski from this group, and at the very least he should be involved in bracket coverage.
Cornerback Aqib Talib has the size to stand up to Gronkowski on short routes or hook routes underneath. He also has the speed and length to keep up with Gronkowski on deep routes down the seam. The team could trust guys like Chris Harris and Bradley Roby to cover the receivers in order to get Talib on Gronkowski.
Nobody knows the Broncos' game plan for dealing with Gronkowski. It’s logical to assume that we may see many different combinations from the Broncos in Week 9.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos, unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.