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The New England Patriots present a laundry list of coverage issues for opposing secondaries, not the least of which is how to handle All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The talented man-child commands double teams on every break into the pattern, and has changed the entire dynamic of the Patriots' offense since returning three weeks ago from multiple surgeries in the off season. - his presence alone enough to open the field up for the rest of New England's stable of young greyhounds.

There may be no stopping Gronkowski on Monday night

And now with the offense anticipating the return of multi-dimensional H-back Shane Vereen for action against the Carolina Panthers this coming Monday night, Gronkowski's impact becomes even greater.

But for Gronkowski and, indeed, the entire Patriots' offense to be effective, the running game must be established.  To run on the Panthers makes them susceptible to the play action - expertly executed by quarterback Tom Brady - and allows Gronkowski some autonomy to do things like chip the defensive end to impede his pass rush...

...and coupled with the play action, Gronkowski can float into the underneath pattern to give Brady a safety valve with unbelievable hands and unmatched athleticism, bowling over would be tacklers like they were pinballs bouncing off bumpers.

Gronkowski is an integral part of both the running and passing game, being both one of the best mauling "wham" blockers in the NFL in the running game as well as a deceptively fast tank that can challenge the seam.

It's no easy task dealing with the likes of Gronkowski, so the key for the Panthers in stopping him is to stop the New England running game, which will allow Carolina to employ a nickle safety to shadow the third year load while still being able to account for the deep threat of rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson, the slot presence of Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman and the versatility of the speedy Vereen.

More than likely, the Panthers' linebackers will be involved in coverage on Gronkowski as well, the likes of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis as good a pass coverage troupe as there is in the league underneath, both with the speed to maintain bracket coverage in tandem with the nickle safety on the seam routes and with the bulk and power to drag him down on the underneath routes.

It's possible that Carolina could even get a little creative on him, sending their own tight end Greg Olsen into coverage on Gronkowski as they did against Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, Olsen's expereince at the position helping to limit the Falcons' former all pro to just six catches.

If the Patriots decide that the way to soften up the Panthers' run defense is to spread things out and force them into a nickle or dime base, Gronkowski will still have duties in run blocking, and that's when Kuechly's football IQ will come into play in diagnosing the play, keying on the movements of Gronkowski and flowing to where he's headed.

Make no mistake, New England is just as prepared to use Gronkowski as a decoy as they are throwing the ball to him over the top of the seam, knowing that their star tight end is going to draw double and even triple coverage in an attempt to keep him from dominating the game...

...but their efforts in assigning a nickle safety and a linebacker to keep him down could backfire on them, given the other legitimate weapons at Brady's disposal - but the only other alternative is to dictate to the entire Patriots' offensive scheme by stopping the run, which means single coverage on Gronkowski in hopes that the pass rush can get to Brady.

Either way, the Panthers' haven't encountered an offense such as the Patriots are ready to expose them with on Monday night, nor the one that the New Orleans Saints will unleash on them the following week - but if they can find a way to shut down Gronkowski, then the Saints' Jimmy Graham in succession, they will have earned their moniker of the best defense in football.

Michael Hamm 11/15/2013 12:53:00 PM Edit
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