How Will the Seattle Seahawks Attempt to Defend Rob Gronkowski?

This Super Bowl matchup features a battle of two strengths: Rob Gronkowski and the Seattle secondary. Who has the upper hand?

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a national treasure.

When he’s not tyrannizing opposing defenses on the field, he is, in many ways, just a big kid off of the field. The 6’6’’ tight end is easily one of the toughest players to defend on the NFL stage. He’s huge, as noted, but he’s also immensely versatile and is unarguably one of the best receivers in the league.

There are many intriguing matchups in this upcoming Super Bowl matchup on Sunday. Will Marshawn Lynch run all over New England’s improved run defense? How will the Seahawks’ sub-par wide receivers get open against cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner? Will LeGarrette Blount continue his improbable playoff dominance in a Patriots uniform?

This Super Bowl is one of the closest matchups in recent memory, but in a lot of ways, no story-line is more important than the meeting of Rob Gronkowski and Seattle’s defense. How will this matchup shake out during the big game?

Seattle’s Philosophy: How They Defend

First, we’ll review how Seattle defends and how awesome their defense really is. The Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL -- their statistical dominance is well known -- but I think that’s too easy of a statement to make. At numberFire, we quantify players and teams on field contribution in Net Expected Points (NEP). You can read more about NEP in our glossary. Adjusted Defensive NEP, which is adjusted for strength of schedule, shows how far above or below expectation a team has performed compared to a league-average team would have in the same situation.

As anyone would expect, Seattle was among the league best in both categories of Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, finishing third in both this year. On a per-passing-play basis, Seattle was one of only three teams to take points away from opposing offenses.

So, Seattle’s defense is dominant, but there is a floating notion out there that the way to beat the ‘Hawks secondary is with tight ends. At the beginning of the season, that was somewhat true. In the first nine weeks of the regular season, Seattle allowed 10 touchdowns and 8.7 yards per receptions to opposing tight ends.

In the final 10 games of the season, including the playoffs, Seattle has allowed one touchdown to opposing tight ends and 12.1 yards per reception. Now, the Seahawks will have the task of stopping or at least slowing down the number-one tight end this past season in terms of Reception NEP and Target NEP: Rob Gronkowski.

What makes Seattle’s defense so good is while, yes, they have the best defensive personnel in the league, they don’t do anything deceiving. They play a lot of Cover-3 and Cover-1, Richard Sherman never leaves the left side of the field, and they make opposing offense adapt to what they do. More often than not in the NFL, it’s the other way around. Defenses play on their heels and alter to what the offense is doing.

Not Seattle.

That is why, in a lot of ways, this makes for the most intriguing matchup of the game. Bill Belichick will move Rob Gronkowski around, as he always does, but it’s different this time. Routinely, when Gronk is moved to the outside, it’s so that he can physically man-handle opposing corner backs. That won’t happen easily against Seattle. 6’3’’ Richard Sherman and 6’1’’ Byron Maxwell are easily some of the game’s best physical corners and are incredibly gifted in jamming, re-routing, and making life for opposing receivers as difficult as possible at the catch point.

This leaves us with the likely outcome of Rob Gronkowski’s seeing a lot of Seattle’s ball-hawking and punishing safety, Kam Chancellor, as well as linebacker KJ Wright. With these two in coverage, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski will look to eat up the seam and try to poke holes in Seattle’s coverage. Of course, that is easier said than done.

Clash of the Best

The matchup of Rob Gronkowski against Seattle’s secondary is the best strength-on-strength struggle this Super Bowl is offering. Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends in yards per route run and receiving yards and was tied with Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas for the most receiving touchdowns during the regular season with 12.

Gronk is easily one of the best tight ends in league history already. His 2011 Reception NEP of 131.91 is still best among tight ends since 2000, and his 2014 mark (112.45) is fourth-best. He is arguably one of the best touchdown scorers of all-time, as well. Rob Gronkowski’s 0.82 receiving touchdowns per game in his first five years in the NFL is the second best-start to a career of all-time, just behind the great Jerry Rice’s 0.92 touchdowns per-game clip.

Seattle’s secondary is very good. Make no mistake about it. The Seahawks may have one of the best defensive units of the last twenty years. But they have a very tall task of slowing down perennial touchdown-maker, Rob Gronkowski, ahead of them, which will hopefully make for some excellent Super Bowl moments.