In a mini-film session, a Jaguar breaks down Rob Gronkowski’s greatness

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It may be the NFL’s greatest unsolved mystery. How do you defend Rob Gronkowski?

“Damn,” says Jaguars defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. “That’s a good question.”

Asked the same question on Monday – how do you defend Gronk in Sunday’s AFC championship – Jags coach Doug Marrone said, “I’m not sure you can.”

Dareus breaks the Pats tight end down this way: “He can be X. He can be Y. He can be slot. He can be tight end. He can be blocking tight end. Just so dynamic.”

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Rob Gronkowski through his career
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Rob Gronkowski through his career
FOXBOROUGH, MA - CIRCA 2010: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots poses for his 2010 NFL headshot circa 2010 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)
DETROIT - NOVEMBER 21: New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski signals first down in front of Detroit Lions DeAndre Levy after Gronkowski's 26-yard reception during fourth quarter action at Ford Field on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
26 December 2010: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) talks to New England Patriots Owner Rober Kraft (r) during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY. (Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH - NOVEMBER 6: New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski's 19 yard reception as he runs past New York Giants Mathias Kiwanuka during 4th quarter action at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH - DECEMBER 4: The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (#87) avoids a tackle by the Colts' A.J. Edds (#52) and leaves Ernie Sims (#55) behind, scoring his 3rd touchdown of the game in the 3rd quarter. The New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium, in week 13 of the NFL regular season, in Foxborough, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 28: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is all smiles as he talks to a TV photographer around his locker after being named to the Pro Bowl team. The Patriots were preparing for Sunday's regular season finale today at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 14: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (#87) catches a deep pass from Tom Brady (#12) for 28 yards to the Denver 4-yard-line and is pushed out of bounds by S Rafael Bush (#36). The New England Patriots play the Denver Broncos in the 2012 AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2011. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS - FEBRUARY 5: New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (#87) on the field during pregame warmup before the start of Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 11: (L-R) Brothers Dan Gronkowski, Gordie Gronkowski, Rob Gronkowski and Glenn Gronkowski arrives at the 2012 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 3: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (left) and tight end Rob Gronkowski after they hooked up on a 19-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. The New England Patriots hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL regular season game at Gillette Stadium, Nov. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 8: Teammates, including Stevan Ridley (#22), rally around Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski as he is about to be carted off the field with a leg injury. The New England Patriots hosted the Cleveland Browns in an NFL regular season game at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - Emmy Award-nominated 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' airs every weeknight (11:35 p.m. - 12:41 a.m., ET), packed with hilarious comedy bits and features a diverse lineup of guests including celebrities, athletes, musicians, comedians and humorous human interest subjects - The guests for MONDAY, FEBRUARY 2 included New England Patriots and Super Bowl XLIX Champion Rob Gronkowski, actress Eva Longoria ('A Path Appears') and musical guest WeeZ Top mash up of Weezer and ZZ Top. (Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 5: (Third quarter) New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski's tongue out touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals during third quarter action at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 5, 2014. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 16: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots looks on against the Indianapolis Colts during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Patriots defeated the Colts 42-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 30: Tight end Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a first down reception against the Green Bay Packers during the second quarter of the NFL game at Lambeau Field on November 30, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates while holding up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Seattle Seahawks as Tom Brady #12 looks on during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
February 4, 2015: Rob Gronkowski pounds another beer. The New England Patriots paraded through the streets of Boston to celebrate their Super Bowl victory. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 09: New England Patriots football player Rob Gronkowski throws a Clipper color football to the fans during a time out in the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on March 9, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. The Clippers won 89-76. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 10: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots looks on late in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on September 10, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 25: Tom Brady #12 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots react after Gronkowski scored a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 29: New England Patriots Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski pumps his fist after getting injured on a pass play against the Denver Broncos during fourth quarter action. The Denver Broncos hosted the New England Patriots for a regular season NFL game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates scoring his second touchdown with teammates in the third quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 19: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots prepares to throw out the first pitch before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants at Fenway Park on July 19, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 13: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski smiles as he speaks to reporters before the Patriots practiced at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 13, 2016. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 07: Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett of the New England Patriots celebrate during the Super Bowl victory parade on February 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl 51. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots is tackled by Tom Brady #12 after stealing his jersey before the opening day game between the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Fenway Park on April 3, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 12: Tight end Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots stands with teammates during the national anthem before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 12, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 3: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots walks to the locker room after warming up for a game against the Buffalo Bills on December 3, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots looks on before the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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So, how to defend him?

“Best way is to have a big cover linebacker who can run,” Dareus said. “In Buffalo we had Manny Lawson. He did a pretty good job. That’s the only thing I can say.”

Manny Lawson is 6-foot-5 and years ago once ran a 4.43 at the scouting combine. Do the Jags have anyone like that?

“Not as big as Manny Lawson,” Dareus said. “Our guys can cover pretty well. It’s just … He’s a big dude. Simple as that.”

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Gronkowski is not only the best tight end remaining in the playoffs; he’s the best skill-position player. The Minnesota Vikings have Adam Thielen and the Philadelphia Eagles have Zach Ertz and the Jags have Leonard Fournette, but Gronkowski has traits of all three.

What will the Jags counter with? Jalen Ramsey? Myles Jack? Both? They have the speed. But both are listed as 6-1, and Gronkowski is 6-6. Add the “catch radius” Marrone and others describe – supplemented by a subtle shove from the burly tight end – and difficult becomes borderline impossible.

ESPN has a neat stat on this: air yards per target. It’s a measure of how long Tom Brady’s passes travel before being caught (or falling incomplete). When Gronkowski is in the game, Brady’s air yards per target jumps from 7.4 to 9.4. That’s a 27 percent difference. Gronkowski in the slot allows the other, smaller receivers to move farther out along the flanks. It’s even more extreme when Gronkowski lines up on the outside. Put simply: Gronkowski is his own spread offense.

One of the underrated aspects of the Brady-Gronk connection is air space. Brady is 6-4 and he rarely moves except to shuffle his feet in the pocket. So unlike a passer who throws on the run, Brady is as tall as he can be when he delivers the throw. Passes to Gronkowski are almost football alley-oops.

“Gotta be constantly, constantly in his face,” Dareus says of Brady.

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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski
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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (R) celebrates his touchdown against the Denver Broncos with quarterback Tom Brady during the first quarter in their NFL AFC Divisional playoff game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 14, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (L) celebrates with quarterback Tom Brady after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Miami, Florida September 12, 2011. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 14: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (#87) is met by QB Tom Brady after his 1st touchdown in the 1st quarter - New England's 2nd touchdown. The New England Patriots play the Denver Broncos in the 2012 AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2011. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 24: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates his 6-yard touchdown reception with teammate Tom Brady during third quarter action against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 7: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, and quarterback Tom Brady are pumped following their first quarter touchdown connection. The New England Patriots visited the Miami Dolphins for a season opening regular season NFL game at Sun Life Stadium. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 05: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Rob Gronkowski #87 after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium on October 5, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots talks to Tom Brady #12 during a huddle during NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 12, 2014 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 18: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady talks to teammate Rob Gronkowski after the game was in hand against the Indianapolis Colts during late fourth quarter action during the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on January 18, 2015. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 1: The Patriots Rob Gronkowski, left, and quarterback Tom Brady celebrate together after they hooked up for a fourth quarter touchdown pass. The New England Patriots hosted the Denver Broncos in a regular season NFL game at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01: Rob Gronkowski #87 (L) and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrate while holding up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: NFL players Tom Brady (L) and Rob Gronkowski attend the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Churchill Downs)
FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 25: Tom Brady #12 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots react after Gronkowski scored a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 15: Rob Gronkowski #87 and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrate their fourth quarter touchdown against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on November 15, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 16: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with Rob Gronkowski after his touchdown in the third quarter. The New England Patriots host the Cincinnati Bengals in a regular season NFL football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 16, 2016. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots hugs Tom Brady #12 after the New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to win the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON - FEBRUARY 7: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left; head coach Bill Belichick, center; and Rob Gronkowski during the rally in City Hall Plaza following the Patriots Super Bowl LI Victory Parade in Boston on Feb. 7, 2017. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 3: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tackles teammate Rob Gronkowski after Gronkowski stole Brady's jersey at the mound for pregame ceremonies, where Brady threw out the first pitch, on Opening Day at Fenway Park in Boston on Apr. 3, 2017. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JUNE 13: New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, left, takes a breather at the end of a drill as he walks near quarterback Tom Brady, right, during practice at the Gillette Stadium practice field in Foxborough, MA on Jun. 13, 2017. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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The former Bill is standing in the Jaguars’ locker room as he says this, and footage of the Patriots’ offense is playing on a big screen across the room.

“Watch this next play right here,” Dareus says, turning toward the screen.

It’s a play in the red zone, against the New York Jets.

“That’s their primary personnel,” Dareus notes. “No running back, two tight ends. There’s the A-gap, and there’s the B-gap.”

He points to the openings on either side of the center.

The play begins. Brady drops back, shifts his view to the A-gap, sees nothing, then shifts to the B-gap and fires a touchdown to Chris Hogan.

“See that? They block it that way.”

It seems simple, and Gronkowski is not involved other than as a decoy, but that simplicity is devastating.

“Every two steps we took,” Dareus says of his time playing against the Pats in Buffalo, “the ball was gone.”

So maybe the question isn’t how to defend Gronkowski, but how to defend Brady. Gronkowski is likely to catch almost anything in that catch radius, so the key is to prevent it from getting there. That’s not any simpler.

“Brady has those two windows,” Dareus says, “and it’s like, he’s going to throw it quick out of those windows. Once those start closing, he hates trying to get rid of it. That’s when the ball is going out of bounds, or to the ground. He’s still gonna figure another way out, but it’s consistently being able to do that.”

Some of the ingredients are there. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell is 6-8. Fellow pass rusher Malik Jackson was on the Denver team that frustrated and beat up Brady two seasons ago in the AFC championship game. Yannick Ngakoue looks like a younger Von Miller. Dareus, like Marrone, is familiar with the Patriots from his time in the AFC East. It all adds up to an answer; just maybe not the complete answer.

How do you defend Gronk? Be tall, be strong, be quick, be brash.

And be in the backfield as fast as humanly possible.

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