By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Jaguars’ defense is exceptional. But so is Rob Gronkowksi.
And while there are many, many reasons to believe the Jacksonville defense is poised to have an impressive showing against the mighty Patriots in Foxboro, it is still difficult to imagine a scenario where Tom Brady’s offense gets shut down completely.
And that is largely due to the presence of big No. 87, an unstoppable tight end who is coming off a playoff game in which he made a First Team All-Pro safety look like a mere speed bump en route to a six-catch, 81-yard, one-touchdown performance. He showed once again that he cannot be covered by just one defender, and he just might be the most important offensive player not named Brady when the Patriots take the field against the Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.
As has been repeated countless times and will be hammered home hundreds more before kickoff, the way you beat Tom Brady is to pressure him with four rushers, collapse the pocket, and force bad throws or generate sacks. It’s cliche, but it’s true — with Brady, and really any quarterback for that matter. It’s difficult to play the position if you never have solid footing.
And though Ben Roethlisberger posted some eye-popping numbers on Sunday (469 yards, 5 TDs), that was in a game with unique dynamics — like an early 21-0 lead for the Jaguars that initiated a pass-heavy attack, and also a pair of fourth-down desperation heaves that resulted in touchdowns, and a completely meaningless touchdown pass in the final seconds of the game.
Plus, the Jacksonville defense was still able to make a number of significant plays — plays that went a long way in deciding the outcome of the football game.
Arguably the biggest came with 2:33 left in the first half, when the Jaguars led 21-7. The Steelers had the ball on the Jaguars’ side of the 50 and were looking to cut that lead in half before the break. Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap in an empty backfield. These were the routes his receivers would run, with tight end Vance McDonald highlighted in red:
It’s possible that either McDonald or JuJu Smith-Shuster (lined up to McDonald’s right) ran the wrong route, as you typically don’t want two receivers crossing paths at that point on the field. Whatever might have happened, Roethlisberger was looking to throw to that side of the field, bypassing Le’Veon Bell on the underneath route and instead looking to either hit the seam or the right sideline. But nobody was open, as McDonald was covered tightly by Myles Jack. Roethlisberger hesitated, got stuck in the pocket with nowhere to throw, and ended up getting sacked by Yannick Ngakoue. The ball came lose, and Telvin Smith picked it up and ran 50 yards for a touchdown that turned the game on its head. (The Jaguars scored seven defensive touchdowns during the regular season, most in the NFL.)
While it’s uncertain if Roethlisberger had McDonald as his No. 1 option on the strip sack, the quarterback was definitely targeting the tight end on the pass that Jack ended up intercepting. On that play — a third-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line — McDonald lined up on the right side of the line before running a simple 7-yard out.
Jack bumped McDonald five yards from the line of scrimmage and remained close enough to the tight end’s hip to be able to jump the route and pick off the pass. Here’s where McDonald would ideally gain some separation from the linebacker:
Here’s how close Jack was to McDonald when the pass was released:
The Jaguars took over on the Steelers’ 18-yard line, and Leonard Fournette turned it into six points just one play later.
That’s 14 points directly off turnovers for the Jaguars, both on plays where Roethlisberger looked toward his tight end who was not open.
That’s why Gronkowski figures to be so important for New England. With the excellent cornerback tandem of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye working the outside and likely making life very difficult for Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan (especially if the officials allow the defensive backs to get as physical with the receivers as they did in Pittsburgh), Brady is likely going to have to go to work over the middle of the field against the linebackers and safeties.
In some cases, that may mean Brady has to throw a pass that might be considered a 50-50 ball (Brady refers to them as 95-5 balls) with the belief and trust that Gronkowski will go up and get it.
Of course, in doing so he’ll have to be aware of safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, both of whom recorded four interceptions on the season.
This is not to say Gronkowski will be Brady’s only targeted receiver on the afternoon, as Danny Amendola remains as important as ever, especially on third downs. And even though Jacksonville has unique athleticism at linebacker, the Patriots are still destined to find themselves with some positive mismatches when Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead line up at various spots in the formation. Add in the complex pre-snap receiver motions and the incomparable pre-snap read ability of Brady, and there’s reason to believe the Patriots could solve the daunting defense of the Jaguars.
But again, Gronkowski may be the key.
Here’s the other Jacksonville sack of Roethlisberger, a play on which McDonald was actually open. Roethlisberger never looked his way. If he had, he would have an easy pickup of 5-10 yards:
Roethlisberger looked for a deep shot, didn’t have it, and ended up getting sacked.
We can look back to the Jaguars’ performance against the Seahawks for perhaps a better illustration, considering Jimmy Graham is at least more comparable to Gronkowski than McDonald is. Russell Wilson threw three interceptions that day — two while targeting Doug Baldwin, and one while targeting Graham. The tight end was targeted just twice all day with no receptions, which contributed to Wilson posting his fifth-worst passer rating of the season. Ramsey had one of the picks, while Bouye made two.
When Jacksonville beat Pittsburgh 30-9 in Week 5 and intercepted Roethlisberger five times, tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald combined for three catches for 24 yards on five targets.
On the flip side, when Jimmy Garoppolo found moderate success against the Jaguars, his top two receivers were not wideouts. They were fullback Kyle Juszczyk (5 receptions, 76 yards) and tight end George Kittle (3 receptions, 42 yards, 1 TD).
And when Blaine Gabbert (!!) and the Cardinals beat the Jaguars, it was tight end Ricky Seals-Jones leading Cardinals receivers with 72 yards and a touchdown on four receptions.
It’s not a universal truth, but generally speaking, playing into the Jaguars’ strength (the Bouye-Ramsey duo) is trouble. Attacking their (relative) weakness is a better course. And when their weakness lines up with your strength, as it does with Gronkowski, then the results could be good.
Though the Jaguars’ stats are excellent against both wide receivers and tight ends, opponents completed passes at a much higher rate to tight ends (64 percent) than they did to wideouts (49.5 percent). Additionally, Jacksonville’s opponents averaged 6.35 yards per attempt to tight ends, compared to 6.16 yards per attempt to wideouts. And they threw touchdowns on 4.1 percent of passes to tight ends, compared to 3.1 percent of passes to wide receivers.
Again, it may not be a significant drop-off for the Jaguars defense, but a tight end like Gronkowski — who resides in a class unto himself — figures to be the perfect player to exploit the opportunity.
Gronkowski has risen to the occasion before, turning in arguably the most impressive performance of his still-young Hall of Fame career in the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver. Though the Patriots lost, Gronkowski caught eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. That included a 40-yard reception on a fourth-and-10 on the Patriots’ final drive, followed by a four-yard touchdown reception on a fourth-and-goal.
If the Patriots play one of their better games and force some Blake Bortles turnovers, they likely won’t need Gronkowski to turn in such a monstrous performance. But if the need arises, the Patriots have the luxury of knowing they can pull the pin on Gronkowski and ride their tight end to a Super Bowl berth.