How do Packers stop Rob Gronkowski?

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski  reacts during the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos.

He's 6-foot-6, 265 pounds and a natural nightmare for most NFL defensive coordinators.

In the coming days, it's going to be Dom Capers' charge to figure out exactly how the Green Bay Packers' defense is going to counteract the enigma that is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The 25-year-old has been Rubik's-Cube challenging for the league's best and brightest defensive minds to solve. Coming into the season, some thought Gronkowski might finally take a step back after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last December.

Instead, he returned in time for the Patriots' regular-season opener and has played in every game since. He doesn't appear to be any worse for wear, either. The fifth-year veteran leads nearly every major category for NFL tight ends with 58 catches for 812 yards and nine touchdowns.

Too big for defensive backs to shield and too fast for most linebackers to keep pace with, Gronkowski has become the face of the new generation of tight ends, an era that's seen NFL general managers begin scouring college basketball gymnasiums looking for a diamond in the rough.

Still, no carbon copy is as perfect as the original blueprint.

"He's probably as talented as there is in terms of the combination," Capers said. "He can block and he's an excellent receiver. Everybody is looking for a guy who is that dual-purpose guy that if you want to have him go in and block, he's a physical blocker and yet he's good catching the ball and he's very good after he gets the ball in his hands because he's big and strong."

The Packers rank in the middle of the pack this season in production allowed to opposing tight ends, conceding 55 catches for 675 yards and two touchdowns with a 12.2-yard average that's probably a tick high for the position.

There have been highs (limiting Detroit's unit to one catch for three yards in Week 3) and lows, like their most forgettable outing in Week 4 against Chicago when Martellus Bennett caught nine passes for 134 yards.

The Packers contained Bennett to two catches for 45 yards in the teams' second meeting earlier this month, though a nagging rib injury seemed to diminish his play.

Both times the Packers mainly relied on their nickel package with slot cornerbacks Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward being responsible for the Bennett assignment with safety help over the top. Capers used a similar all-hands-on-deck approach against Carolina's Greg Olsen and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham.

"Gronkowski's a big test," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We haven't played someone like him in a while, that's for sure. Just his size and his ability just to create a throwing radius just with his body, I think he definitely has more vertical speed than people realize. He's an excellent football player and he's definitely a difference maker."

Capers also could entertain the possibility of putting linebacker Clay Matthews on him. A recent switch to inside linebacker has seen the four-time Pro Bowler drop into coverage 65 times on his 175 defensive snaps (37.1 percent) since the bye week.

Dropping Matthews into coverage comes with a catch in that it limits the defense's ability to frequently deploy its best pass-rusher, which might be needed Sunday against nine-time Pro Bowler and two-time MVP quarterback Tom Brady.

Brady has a 111.7 passer rating since October (190-280-2,207, 22 touchdowns, four interceptions), but can be rattled by pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, he has a 59.4 rating when hurried (53-110-613, three touchdowns, four interceptions).

You have to think Capers would be leery about using any other linebacker against Gronkowski, though he reintroduced Brad Jones to the defense for 13 snaps as a dime linebacker in Sunday's 24-21 win over Minnesota.

"We'll have to take a look at him and see what we think it's going to take," said Capers of pressuring Brady. "Clay is obviously a big part of all of our packages. Whether he's playing on the ball or off the ball, you saw how much he rushed from off the ball yesterday. When he's off the ball, it's not all coverage with Clay."

As Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have done for the Packers' offense, the attention Gronkowski draws from defensive coordinators enables other skill-position players to open up in Brady's periphery.

Even when the Detroit Lions contained Gronkowski to six catches for 78 yards, it freed up Tim Wright to catch two touchdown passes in the 34-9 blowout. The Lions secondary shaded toward Gronkowski on both red-zone scores with no one covering Wright as the second tight end in the set.

Capers knows how crafty Patriots coach Bill Belichick can be in all three phases of the game. He worked for him in 2008 as a secondary coach before being hired by the Packers the following year. It was the only year Capers didn't work as a NFL head coach or defensive coordinator since he was hired to run Pittsburgh's defense in 1992.

"You don't do it as long as he's done it with the success he's had without having a special feel for what you're doing," Capers said. "Obviously, he's had Tom Brady for a number of years who is as good as there is as a quarterback. Bill's background as a defensive coach has really aided him. He knows what he wants to do. They are very well coached and very well drilled on all the little things."

Capers and McCarthy agree you have to be sharp to hang with the Patriots, who will carry a seven-game winning streak into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

The Packers weren't exactly at that level against the Vikings, getting flagged for eight penalties for 75 yards. A holding call on Micah Hyde in the second quarter wiped out a Morgan Burnett interception and a neutral-zone infraction penalty on linebacker Mike Neal on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter gave Minnesota a new set of downs.

Fortunately for Green Bay's defense, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was all over the place with his throws. On Sunday, the Packers expect Brady to be pinpoint accurate.

The first step to stopping the Patriots' multi-faceted offense will be limiting his primary target.

"You just have to know how you match up and who you're going to have covering him," said Capers of Gronkowski. "You have to have the ability to change things up at times, especially with a guy like Brady. If he can zero in on any one thing, he knows where the weaknesses are and where to go with the ball. I think being able to change up your looks is going to be very important."

-- and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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