Two of the best tight ends in football: Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce
A short-arm motion and a flick of the wrist by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes resulted in a spiral lofted directly into the hands of Travis Kelce, who’d gotten a step and a half behind a defender struggling mightily to keep pace for a 30-yard gain against the Jaguars on Sunday.
One play illustrates the conundrum the Chiefs present to opponents as well as the one they must counteract against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night.
Tight ends like Kelce and the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, both All-Pro selections and both wearing jersey No. 87, demand a defense play a certain way or risk being carved up. Even with careful planning and hours of film study, getting beat against either is less risk and more like a guarantee.
The first priority for both defenses in the passing game may not be big-play wide receivers, but slowing down two very different yet similarly-dominant tight ends capable of prompting sleepless nights for opposing coaching staffs.
“It’s just so many things that he can do and just being a former player that had gone against the likes of Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez and those type guys,” said former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison, now an NBC television analyst. “He is so athletic and so fast and he runs such great routes, whereas Rob, he’s more of this bulldozing guy and he’s big and he’ll push you off and he’ll use his body and he uses his size.”
Both players represent the evolution of the position, once more blocker than anything else in a run-oriented generation of football. Now, Kelce leads his team in receptions (28), and Gronkowski leads his in receiving yards (308).
Part of what makes Gronkowski and Kelce tough to prepare for is that they don’t simply line up as traditional tight ends. One play they might be next to one of the tackles, another they may be off the line and used in motion or shifts, and yet another time they may be in the slot or split out as wide receivers. At times they’ll be isolated on one side of the field by themselves away from the other receivers.
“You never get a bead on where he’s going,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said of Kelce. “You get him one-on-one. You can get him on linebackers. You can get him on safeties. You can get him on corners. You just feel good about going to him. I think the one part of his game — I saw a lot of him when I was (coaching) in college and he kicked our ass — a lot of it is his run after the catch is outstanding. He’s big. He’s strong. He plays with a ton of intensity. I can’t say enough good things about him. Except I wish he went to Syracuse.”
It’s not mere window dressing when Kelce or Gronkowski move around. It’s usually to dictate a matchup the coaching staffs have targeted in their game plans.
Kelce caught five passes for 100 yards against the Jaguars on Sunday, and three of his passes were for 30 yards or more. The Jaguars tried different defenders on him. They used safeties and linebackers. They played zone and they played man-to-man.
“They have skills to do that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “And you are always looking for matchups. You move those guys out and create matchups and they can handle that, both of them. That is what makes them two of the best in the game.”
Gronkowski, listed at 6-foot-6 and 268 pounds, has four 1,000-yard receiving seasons and five seasons of 10 touchdowns or more on his resume, along with five Pro Bowl selections and four All-Pro accolades.
Defenses must make tough choices on how to defend Gronkowski, especially now that Julian Edelman’s back after serving his suspension for violating the NFL’s policy banning performance-enhancing substances, Josh Gordon’s starting to acclimate to the offense after being traded from the Cleveland Browns, and speedster Chris Hogan’s back as a No. 3 receiver as opposed to a first option.
“You’ve got to double-cover him a lot of the time,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of Gronkowski. “But that doesn’t mean that (Tom Brady) is not going to throw to him. That’s his unique skill — he can go up between us right here and come down with the ball. He’s a hard cover. He’s a big man. He’s skilled. He knows how to play; that’s one of the parts that goes unnoticed. He’s a smart guy that understands what he’s doing out there.”
The choice for defensive coaches like Sutton is whether or not to devote extra attention to Gronkowski, which is practically a necessity, and leave other defenders vulnerable in one-on-one coverage.
“You run out of ways — somebody just has to play,” Sutton said. “Somebody has got to do it without a lot of help. That’s one of the hard things. You just have to keep changing things up a little bit.”
If the damned if you do, damned if you don’t predicament sounds familiar, well, it should.
Kelce, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound former high school quarterback, recorded his second 1,000-yard receiving season last year. He also earned his third Pro Bowl selection and his second All-Pro honor.
With Chiefs receivers Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley and free-agent acquisition Sammy Watkins probing secondaries alongside him this season, Kelce may be even more dangerous than ever.
Hall of Fame coach and NBC analyst Tony Dungy and former NFL wide receiver and analyst Cris Collinsworth both gave the edge to Gronkowski as the better of the two players because of Gronkowski’s ability as a blocker.
However, Collinsworth believes the gap has gotten closer. He lauded Kelce’s improved blocking, particularly in the open field.
“I think the more the game moves towards a college-type spread game, the more Travis Kelces you’re going to see playing the tight end position,” Collinsworth said. “It’s almost like you draft an either/or today. You either draft a blocking tight end, H-back, whatever, or you draft a big receiver essentially in a Travis Kelce.”