Face facts. This isn’t a one-man job. It might be a two- or perhaps even a three-man operation. But with apologies to Stephon Gilmore and any other Buffalo Bills defensive players who have volunteered for “Gronk” duty this week, there is this sobering fact: Rex Ryan is smart enough to recognize the insanity of assigning one person the herculean task of trying to cover New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“Shoot, he’d have to look like whoever, King Kong or something. ‘Yeah, you got Gronk. We’re putting Kong on him,’” Ryan joked Wednesday as the Bills began full-scale preparation for Sunday’s game against the Patriots.
The Bills’ media room broke into laughter at that one, but the Bills’ coach understands as well as anyone that covering the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is nothing to joke about.
Not after he began the sixth season of an NFL career destined to one day reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with three touchdown receptions last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose efforts to cover him were laughable.
“This dude, he’s going to make catches, there’s no question about it,” Ryan said. “But you just don’t want him to go crazy on you, three touchdowns, whatever it is. Obviously, you’re trying like hell to eliminate that. But is he as big a challenge as you’ll face in the league as a tight end? Absolutely he is. His size, his speed, his strength.
“This just in: he’s pretty good.”
Here’s another bulletin: the Bills’ success, or failure, in handling the Western New York native will likely go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.
Of course, Tom Brady is always the focal point of any team’s Patriot plan, but Gronkowski is the X factor. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will catch their share of passes as well, yet they aren’t nearly as capable of taking over a game the way Gronk can.
Ryan wouldn’t reveal the specifics of how the Bills intend to deal with Gronkowski, although he did acknowledge “there will probably be some snaps when three guys are on him.”
Shannon Sharpe, a Hall-of-Fame tight end who helped the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowls, doesn’t believe there is any way to truly shut down Gronkowski. However, he does see two ways to “maintain him.”
The most obvious is to generate pressure on Brady, and that’s something the Bills should expect to do with their immensely talented front seven and Ryan’s blitz-happy scheme that has a history of keeping the Patriots’ quarterback in check. The second way is to make as much contact as possible with Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage.
“Nobody’s re-routing him,” Sharpe said. “It’s almost like they’re afraid to put their hands on him. He’s a big guy. Change of direction is not his strong suit, but if you let him get a head of steam and run, he can run. So you’ve got to try to beat him up physically at the line of scrimmage, throw off his timing, make Tom Brady take the ball somewhere else.
“Look, if Amendola beats you, Julian Edelman, you walk to the center of the field and say, ‘Hey, guys, great game plan.’ But those guys give you paper cuts. Rob Gronkowski sends you to the trauma unit. You know he’s going to gash you.”
Members of the Bills’ defense are well aware of the multitude of headaches, figuratively and literally, an afternoon with Gronk can provide. Safety Corey Graham could be in on the fun, provided he’s cleared to play after entering the NFL’s concussion protocol due to the knee to the helmet he received on the first play from scrimmage in last Sunday’s victory against Indianapolis.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Graham said. “I mean, that is tough, because if you watch the film on Gronk, he uses his body well. He pushes off a lot. Pretty much every other play, he’s pushing off and he’s using his body and things like that.
“A lot of guys preach to get your hands on him and beat him up and things like that. But that’s kind of working into his hands, if you ask me. Because that’s what he wants. He wants the contact, he wants to push off, he wants to do that type of thing.”
Said safety Bacarri Rambo, “You can get your hands on him, but I don’t know how long your hands are going to be on him because he’s strong enough to move you out of the way, strong enough to just bulldoze you over, just run you over.”
Ryan has been part of more than a few meetings to launch the process of assembling the game plan before facing Gronkowski when the consensus is to play tight coverage.
With each session, however, opinions begin to shift.
“Most secondary coaches I’ve ever been around, early in the week, they’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s get up on them. We’ll press these guys, we’ll do this and that,’” Ryan said. “And as the week goes on, ‘Well, let’s back them off a little bit.’ Then, all you hear on game day is, ‘Get your ass back!’”
Safety Duke Williams says Gronkowski “loves to push off” and estimates the illegal tactic “doesn’t get called 95 percent of the time.” What can he and his fellow defenders do about that? Not much.
What they cannot do, Williams said, is stray from the integrity of the coverage. They must do everything possible to keep Gronkowski from making “explosive plays” of 20 yards or longer.
“We know they like to go vertical with Gronk,” he said. “And we know that they like to use him in different types of situations and line him up all over the field. As long as we stay on top of his routes and play our defense, we can beat any offense in the National Football League.”
The reflection from the diamonds on his four Super Bowl rings hasn’t blinded Brady to the fact the Bills have one of the stronger defenses in the NFL. It’s his job to find its weaknesses and exploit them. That means making sure he gets the ball into the hands of all of his playmakers.
Even the ones not named Gronkowski.
“He’s obviously a big part of our offense, but from a quarterback’s standpoint, you try to throw the ball to the guy open,” Brady said during a conference call Wednesday with media covering the Bills. “If they double-team him all game, we’ve still got to figure out a way to win. If they triple-team him or they quadruple-team him or they put 11 guys on him, other people have to make plays.
“If they don’t cover him, you’re going to figure out ways to get him the ball.”
It’s a fairly safe bet that the Bills aren’t going with that last option.