Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots love their mismatches.
With their personnel at running back, tight end and receiver and their future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, the Carolina Panthers’ opponent this Sunday is capable of putting a lot of points on the board, especially by capitalizing on those mismatches.
Brady has his favorite tight end, Rob Gronkowski, back on the field after he missed half of the 2016 season to injury.
Gronkowski doesn’t do a ton of blocking. Instead, he’s a threat at receiver – one who has three 1,000-plus yard seasons in his seven-year career in the NFL and is averaging 14.9 yards per catch on 16 receptions so far in 2017.
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That last number means that Brady has been targeting Gronkowski in intermediate routes often, where he is pitted against linebackers and sometimes safeties.
“He’s a matchup nightmare,” said Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly of Gronkowski, whose play draws comparison to the Panthers’ own Greg Olsen.
“He occupies people. ... He’s a big guy, you have to know where he is. He creates space by just his size. I think he understands what the offense is trying to do and what he’s able to do even without the ball.
“He doesn’t come off the field, he’s like Greg. You have to know where he is at all times.”
Kuechly has squared off against Gronkowski once before, in 2013, which resulted in a now-infamous incident in which he interfered with the tight end on a potential touchdown pass and escaped without a call. Brady followed the referee down the tunnel in a rage after the game, a Panthers win.
“It is what it is,” said Gronkowksi about the play this week. “It was what it was.”
It can be assumed that Carolina will utilize all three of its linebackers against Gronkowski and Brady’s other weapons on Sunday, especially in their hybrid linebacker/safety nickel package that they call “Buffalo.”
That package exists specifically to counter big, route-running tight ends or slot receivers, where Gronkowski will spend most of his snaps.
That means Buffalo nickel Shaq Thompson will have his hands full, as will Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Gronkowski said this week that because of the Panthers’ linebackers’ skill in coverage, downfield routes will be more of an emphasis.
“With their linebackers, they’ve just got top-notch speed. They can go across the whole field and keep up with anyone – all three of their linebackers can keep up with anyone,” he said. “When you get the ball you have to go straight up the field. You can’t go side to side. They just have that much speed.”