Anyone that has watched football within the past five years is aware of the talents of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski. At 6-6, 265 pounds with a 33.5-inch vertical jump and hands measuring 10.75 inches, Gronkowski seems more like a Madden Create-a-Player than a human being.
Too fast for linebackers and too freakishly big for defensive backs, Gronkowski is a nightmare for opposing defenses and an integral part of the New England passing attack.
So, how exactly do the Denver Broncos stop Rob Gronkowski in Sunday’s AFC Championship game?
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How do you solve a problem like Gronk?
Although the Broncos won the regular season matchup between these two teams, Gronkowski tallied six receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown, slowing down only due to a knee injury suffered in the fourth quarter.
Various injuries throughout his career seem to be the only way to limit his production, leading Broncos CB Chris Harris to endorse hitting Gronkowski at his knees during a SportsCenter interview. This led to a heated twitter debate between the tight end and the Denver Broncos CB.
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As morbid as Harris’ strategy sounds, a healthy Gronkowski is nearly unstoppable. Not including his rookie year (when he was not fully integrated into the passing attack), Gronkowski has only recorded ten regular season games with fewer than 50 receiving yards and zero touchdowns.
He had two such contests in the postseason, but these were due to injuries. In those regular season contests, the Patriots posted an 8-2 record, capitalizing on 100-plus yard receiving games from slot receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Julian Edelman throughout the years.
Even when defenses are able to stop or limit Gronkowski, the Patriots take advantage of the attention he draws away from their other receivers, extending his impact beyond catching the football.
Searching for an answer
As obvious as it may sound, the method to stop Rob Gronkowski (as well as the entire New England offense) is to limit Patriots QB Tom Brady.
To do this, the Denver Broncos need to generate pressure on the quarterback to prevent him from stepping up in the pocket and disrupt his rhythm, leading to a frustrated Brady.
The Broncos defense generated 52 sacks during the regular season to lead the league and were led by standout pass rushers Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, while Pro Football Focus ranks the New England offensive line 31st in pass blocking.
However, the return of Patriots OT Sebastian Vollmer adds some talent and leadership to an offensive line ravaged by injuries, and the impact was immediate during their game against the Chiefs in the divisional round, as the Patriots allowed zero sacks and only one hit on the quarterback.
The Broncos pass rush was a key component of their regular season victory against the Patriots, as they sacked Brady three times and recorded nine QB hits even without Demarcus Ware.
While Miller and Ware are among the best in the business as outside pass rushers, the Broncos need to produce interior pressure from the defensive line, particularly from defensive ends Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe in order to stop Brady, Gronkowski, and the New England offense.
Jackson recorded five sacks and 19 quarterback hurries, while Wolfe sacked opposing quarterbacks 5.5 times with 16 quarterback hurries.
Interior pressure combined with the outside rush, aided by creative play calling from Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, give the Broncos a chance to stall the Patriots offense and limit the football powers of Rob Gronkowski.
On the offensive
On the offensive side of the ball, the Denver Broncos need Peyton Manning to, well, not play like Peyton Manning of 2015.
Despite guiding the Broncos to a 7-2 start and breaking Brett Favre’s record for career passing yardage, Manning was abysmal, throwing for only nine touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions in the regular season, posting career lows in traditional passer rating (67.9) and QBR (44.96).
Along with a fantastic effort by the defense, the Broncos defeated the Patriots in the regular season because of their running game, as C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 172 yards and three touchdowns, gashing the Patriots defense in the fourth quarter.
Thus, the strategy for the New England defense is to shut down the Denver rushing attack and, as unlikely as it would sound five or six years ago, make Peyton Manning prove he can beat them.
Although being talked about as Manning versus Brady 17, the real matchup of this game is between the New England offense and the Denver defense.
While the Denver Broncos possess a ferocious pass rush, it will not be enough to stop Brady’s quick release to underneath receivers to set up Gronkowski in the red zone.
As much as I would like to see Manning retire a winner, New England’s passing attack and Manning’s declining arm strength will likely result in a Patriots victory.