Tennessee Titans Need to Get Creative to Stop Rob Gronkowski

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Jordan Poyer
FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Jordan Poyer /

The Tennessee Titans have struggled to defend opposing TEs this season. Can they get creative and figure out a way to stop the best TE in the league?

When it comes to Rob Gronkowski, SportsCenter legend Dan Patrick’s catchphrase sums him up best: “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him!” Any attempt to talk myself into thinking the Tennessee Titans have a chance of winning always gets hung up on the same question: How are the Titans going to stop Gronk?

The Titans struggled mightily against another premier tight end, Travis Kelce, last week in their win over the Kansas City Chiefs. I feel like it’s not a stretch to think Kansas City wins that game if Kelce isn’t knocked out of the game with a concussion. So how will the Titans defend Gronk and prevent him from doing damage like Kelce did? As Brandon recently showed, the Titans have a long history of struggling against TEs. Everything they have tried thus far hasn’t worked, so let’s get creative and explore some other ways the Titans might be able to slow him down.

Stick Kevin Byard on Gronk

If you take a look at Gronk’s game log for 2017, you will notice there aren’t many games where he had an unimpressive stat line. The only performance that really stands out is the first game of the season against the Chiefs, where he was held to two receptions for 33 yards (on six targets). The key to that lackluster performance? The Chiefs assigned their All-Pro safety, Eric Berry, to cover Gronk. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Titans also happen to have their very own All-Pro safety, Kevin Byard! Granted, Byard is a second-year free safety and Berry is an eight-year veteran strong safety, so it isn’t necessarily the same situation. 

But there definitely is some merit in matching up your best guy versus their best guy. This would also prevent the Titans from ever getting in a situation where a sub-par coverage player gets stuck on Gronk, like when LB Avery Williamson was covering Kelce when he scored a touchdown. Additionally, the Titans have had issues with communication on defense this season, and if Byard is permanently on Gronk, then it could prevent lapses in communication that allow Gronk to break free.

The question is how the defense would look if Byard’s focus was devoted to Gronk. Byard does so many different things for the defense that it would require the rest of the unit to play flawless football. Realistically, the Titans probably won’t want Byard committed to defending just one player. But I think putting a talented player like Byard on Gronkowski may be one of the only ways to slow him down. Perhaps CB Logan Ryan could also be an option? The Titans might not be able to do so all game long, but they should at least attempt it a few times throughout the game.

Move Cyprien to the Box and Utilize Searcy

When the Titans signed Johnathan Cyprien in the offseason, I had hoped it would lead to the Titans running a three-safety look between Cyprien, Byard, and Da’Norris Searcy. That never materialized, as the Titans have stuck to the traditional two-safety looks with Cyprien and Byard. But Searcy, who hasn’t lived up to his big free agent contract, is still a solid defender. His PFF score this season is almost 30 points higher than Cyprien’s, and he played well when Cyprien was sidelined due to injury.

Just like the Titans have Williamson in on early downs and Jayon Brown in for passing situations, the Titans could do the same with Cyprien and Searcy. Even though Cyprien’s coverage skills are questionable, I still trust the veteran more than the rookie linebacker, Brown. Cyp could be moved up into the box and either cover Gronk at the line or track one of the Patriots’ talented pass-catching RBs. Searcy and Byard could then be utilized in different double team and single high capacities to help contain Gronk.

I would feel much better with Searcy in coverage than Cyprien, especially after Cyprien struggled covering Kelce last week. It also doesn’t hurt that Searcy has extensive experience playing against Gronk, as he played the Patriots twice a year for four years while with the Buffalo Bills. I realize the chance of this happening is a long shot, as NFL coaches are unlikely to drastically change their game plans at this point in the season. But, hey, if Alabama could sub in their backup QB at halftime of the National Championship, maybe the Titans can utilize a backup safety in the AFC Divisional Round?

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Give Him Multiple Looks

Gronk may come off as a lovable doofus in interviews, but make no mistake: he is a smart football player. If the Titans present the same type of coverage to him every snap, he and Brady will figure out a way to beat it. The best option is to keep him on his toes by throwing all sorts of coverages and looks at him to keep him off his game and prevent him from getting into a rhythm. Put Byard on him, jam him at the line with Cyprien (with help behind), put a corner on him when he splits out wide, etc. The Titans should figure out what works best for their team and scheme, but they can’t get comfortable and run the same coverage if it has been working.

The Titans also would be wise not to use the three-man rush like they did last week against the Chiefs. Alex Smith was able to pick them apart, and it wasn’t until the Titans brought more pressure that they started having success. Brady will have a field day if he gets time against a Tennessee defense that is stretched thin due to committing resources to covering Gronk.

The Brady-Gronkowski connection is what makes the New England offense tick; if the Titans can manage to slow him down, they may have a shot of winning this game. Of course, as every team who has ever played Gronk can attest, that is easier said than done.

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