First of a five-part series looking at team strategy for Super Bowl LIII. Part 1: What are the best ways to cover New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski?
He finished the regular season with three touchdown receptions, the same number as Rams second-year tight end Gerald Everett.
Rob Gronkowski never has had a less productive season scoring-wise in his NFL career.
And yet, his presence hangs over Super Bowl LIII this week as surely as the Atlanta skyline.
A year ago in this game, Gronkowski caught nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns, a performance that must be respected despite a 2018 season that saw the five-time Pro Bowler blend in like never before.
Gronkowski missed three games in the middle of the season because of ankle and back injuries that boston.com reported to be “somewhat mysterious,” which would sound odd were this not the Patriots.
He finished the season with 47 catches for 682 yards, numbers that pale compared to his career averages.
Still, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski will be a difficult matchup no matter what the Rams try.
Against undersized linebackers Mark Barron and Cory Littleton, Gronkowski would have advantages of at least three inches in height and 40 pounds in weight.
When defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and cornerback Aqib Talib were with Denver, Phillips had Talib cover Gronkowski at times. On Sunday, however, it seems more likely that Talib would remain outside.
Another option would be safety John Johnson, who is listed at 6 feet and 209 pounds. The difference in size would leave Johnson vulnerable and force him to make plays as the ball arrives.
“He makes a lot of contested catches just because he’s so big,” Johnson said. “If you get caught on top of him — if you’re basically behind him — you have no shot. I’m going to have to stay underneath him.”
A four-time 1,000-yard receiver, Gronkowski was touted this season more for his run blocking as New England finished fifth in the league in rushing yards.
He had only one catch against the Chargers in the AFC divisional round, but then Patriots quarterback Tom Brady targeted him five times in the first half of the AFC title game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In overtime, Brady connected with his longtime tight end for a 15-yard gain to convert a third and 10 in overtime. Three plays later, Rex Burkhead scored, and New England was heading back to the Super Bowl.
“I think just the way you look at his off-the-field of grinding through injuries, that’s how he plays,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said of Gronkowski. “I think it showed up [in the AFC championship] when we needed him the most.”
No matter what the numbers suggest, Gronkowski remains dangerous and a huge factor simply because Brady trusts him. Also, Gronkowski, who is approaching his 30th birthday, still provides the Patriots with attitude and personality.
McCourty’s twin brother, Jason, is in his first season with New England and recently recalled seeing Gronkowski work up an enormous sweat — dancing in the locker room.