For this week's key match-up, we will take a look at Rob Gronkowski and the Bills defense. The Bills as a defense have lost a few players early on in the season. They lost Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland to injury, Marcell Dareus to suspension and also released projected starter Manny Lawson. Ronald Darby and Aaron Williams, two starters for Buffalo, are also questionable coming into Sunday. Despite these losses, the Bills defense has held opposing tight ends to only seven receptions and 59 yards to start the season. While their competition has been light so far (Baltimore, New York Jets and Cardinals), Buffalo faces their biggest threat yet at the tight end position in Rob Gronkowski.
In his only match-up last season with the Bills, "Gronk" finished with only two receptions for 37 yards. Other than his week 17 game against the Dolphins (two receptions, 18 yards), that was Gronk's lowest number of receptions and receiving yards. And that was also with Tom Brady under center as well, which he won't have on Sunday. It is worth mentioning that Gronk was also dealing with a knee injury at the time, but he is dealing with a hamstring injury this time though. But with Brady not under center, Gronk will be catching passes on Sunday from either Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett.
Both Garoppolo and Brissett are questionable for Sunday but if Garoppolo is active, he will likely start no matter what Brissett's availability is. That is good news for Gronk as the team will likely utilize the passing game more than with Brissett under center. And despite Gronk only seeing only target last week while playing very few snaps, expect his involvement to increase this weekend as he continues to heal (slowly) from his hamstring injury. Despite being listed as questionable and practicing on a limited basis all week, Gronk is slowly but surely getting back to 100%.
For the Bills, one main reason why they have been able to contain opposing tight ends so well is due to the strong play from their linebackers. According to Bleacher Report's NFL1000, which ranks all positions on a week to week basis, the Bills had some terrific results from their linebackers in week three. Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander both were ranked in the top 15 for 3-4 outside linebackers and both had at least a 10 out of 15 score in pass coverage. For Preston Brown and Zach Brown, they both were ranked in the top 20 for inside linebackers. Also, the Bills safeties, Corey Graham and Aaron Williams were both ranked in the top 10 at free and strong safety in week three while also receiving high marks in pass coverage.
But, the Bills have yet to face one of the best tight ends in the league this season and may be in for a true test. What the Bills will need to figure out is how to properly cover Gronk without sacrificing the attention needed to the other weapons that the Patriots have on offense. It will be hard for the Bills to be able to use double coverage on Gronk often, but will almost need to considering how well he can do in one-on-one situations in the open field. Both outside linebackers (Alexander and Hughes) seem to be able to hold their own in pass coverage, so it will likely fall on them to keep Gronk contained depending on where he lines up.
One thing going against the Bills is the fact that they have given up almost 800 yards receiving to wide receivers (780) in only three games this year. That falls on their cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Stephon Gilmore and Kevon Seymour. But the added pressure of wide receivers like Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and even Danny Amendola running all around the field with Gronk still being a threat at tight end will make it even harder for the Bills to contain everyone effectively. That's not to mention the added dimension of someone like James White being a threat out of the backfield as a receiver too.
The key to this match-up for the Bills and keeping Gronk effectively under wraps is proper coverage assignments and relying on their outside linebackers to be able to stick with Gronk. He is effective in the short, intermediate and deep game, so he will need to be accounted for at all times. The Patriots boast a plethora of receiving weapons that teams always have to keep accounted for, which makes the assignment of containing all of them difficult to accomplish. While Buffalo has done a good job against tight ends like Dennis Pitta and Darren Fells, Gronk is a completely different player.
Gronk only played in 23% of offensive snaps in week three (14) in his first game back from his hamstring injury, but it would not be surprising to see him play at least 50% in week four as he continues to get healthier. He is a difference maker in the run blocking game as well, so that is another facet that the Bills will have to account for when game-planning around the All-Pro tight end.
Overall, this will be a very interesting match-up to watch as Gronk is expected to be much more involved in the Patriots offensive game plan this week. How the Bills are able to contain him along with remembering about the other offensive play-makers will be something to keep an eye on.