The New England Patriots have the best tight end in the league, but the Tennessee Titans have an offense that relies on their tight end as well.
Delanie Walker isn't Rob Gronkowski- no one is- but he's the best player on the Titans offense. Walker has 871 yards on 74 receptions, more than double the next best player on the Titans in both categories (Dorial Green-Beckham 415 yards; Kendall Wright 33 receptions). If the Patriots can shut down Walker, then the Tennessee offense is easy to solve.
But shutting down Walker is easier said than done.
"He's good at everything," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the Titans tight end. "He's a really hard guy to match up on. You put the little guys on him and he's too big. You put the big guys on him and his quickness, his route running ability, his length, they're a problem.
"So it seems like whoever is covering him when you look at the tape you're looking like that's a mismatch. He's not quick enough or he's not big enough. There is nobody that really matches up very well against him. He's an excellent technique player, sets up his routes well, has got good patience."
The Patriots have had plenty of success shutting down tight ends this season as safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty have paired up and excelled. Unfortunately McCourty will not be available- so can Chung hold down the fort on his own?
The most similar teams that the Patriots have faced are Washington or Buffalo, teams that rely on Jordan Reed or Charles Clay as the top receiver, with running backs filling in as the next-most important players.
Is Walker the best tight end the Patriots have seen this season?
"I'd put him with [Antonio] Gates," Belichick said. "it's not Gates, but there are elements to that - his length, his ability to get down the field is impressive but he's good on intermediate routes, run after catch and again he sets up things well. He knows when to sit down in the hole, when to go across, when to go behind, when to go in front. It just seems like he always makes the right decision and seems like he's always open.
"I can see why they throw it to him so much. It's because he's always open. Even when he's covered he's open because of his length and his ability to go up and timing on jump balls and his hands, catching the ball away from his body. He does a really good job. He's a tough guy to match up on."
Walker is the key to the Titans offense and the Patriots have a strategy in mind. Belichick loves forcing young quarterbacks to win with their arm, so look for the defense to focus on stopping the running game and limiting Walker. If the Titans have any success on offense, quarterback Marcus Mariota will have to look to his second or third options in the offense.