Defending Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski offers challenge for Chiefs

Sep 21, 2014; Foxborough, MA; Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) against the Oakland Raiders at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2014; Foxborough, MA; Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) against the Oakland Raiders at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Chiefs have a rather large and imposing problem to deal with Monday night.

And the dilemma comes in the form of 6-6, 265-pound New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“He brings so much to the table,” Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith said. “With his size and his length combined with (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady’s accuracy, he’s like almost unguardable sometimes.

“For a guy with my size – I’m big, I’m long myself – to be all over his back, but for Tom to put the ball so far out to where my length doesn’t even help any more, it’s crazy.”

The 6-3, 218-pound Smith, a former member of the Miami Dolphins before joining the Chiefs last offseason, has experience playing twice a year against Gronkowski from 2010-12.

The same is true for Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who coached linebackers while with the New York Jets before arriving in Kansas City.

“This is a big man,” Sutton said of Gronkowski. “It’s just hard to get around him. He’s like a basketball player screening you off. Of course, Tom Brady is so accurate with the ball that if he can keep leverage on you it’s just hard sometimes. You can be in tight coverage and you just can’t get the ball away from him.”

Smith agreed with his defensive coordinator.

“I’ve seen this guy make so many plays,” Smith said, “and it’s not on the defensive back as far as not having good coverage, it’s just he’s so big. Size and accuracy from a quarterback are just two things that are hard to stop.”

Of course, Gronkowski, a fifth-year pro, returns from an early January ACL surgery. And the Patriots have eased Gronkowski into the offense through three regular-season games.

He saw action on 38 plays in Week 1 (44 percent) and 27 plays (42 percent) in Week 2, culminating in a Week 3 performance where he played a season-high 44 snaps (59 percent of offensive plays).

Gronkowski, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and a 2011 first-team All-Pro, said during Wednesday’s media conference call his recovery is going “very well” as he continues to build stamina and returns to football shape.

“I feel like every week I can progress,” Gronkowski said, “keep on doing more and more and get to the point where I was that one time, so just playing whenever Coach (Bill Belichick) would put me in.”

Still, even an apparent less than 100 percent healthy Gronkowski remains a force to be reckoned with, as he has totaled 11 catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns on the season.

And tight ends have posed a challenge through three games for the Chiefs, as two of three players have found the end zone: Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker in Week 1 and Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas in Week 2.

Accounting for Gronkowski, who posted 96 yards receiving and two touchdowns on four catches the last time he faced the Chiefs in 2011, is a priority.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s 100 percent or 20 percent,” safety Ron Parker said. “You still have to gameplan for him like he’s 100 percent. He took 40-something snaps last week and it looks like he hasn’t lost a step.”

Smith indicated forcing Brady out of his comfort zone and studying film to determine tendencies could provide a key to defending Gronkowski.

“You have to study formations and try to see where he’s lined up and what routes he runs from that position,” Smith explained. “That way, you can kind of anticipate some routes and get a jump on it on the route right before he does it.

“You can try and put pressure to Tom’s right side and try and make him escape away from Gronkowski to make that throw more difficult. It’s certain things you can do, but it’s definitely going to be a tough task.”

Perhaps a daunting task if 5-9, 180 nickel cornerback Chris Owens suddenly finds himself looking directly across the line of scrimmage at Gronkowski.

But Owens already has a plan if he is matched up against the bigger tight end.

“I just have to use my quickness to my advantage,” Owens said. “He uses his size and I have to use my quickness.”

Meanwhile, another area potentially offering the Chiefs an edge is found in the team’s own backyard.

The Chiefs have athletic tight ends with Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris. And Kelce, who measures 6-5, 260, has drawn comparisons to Gronkowski.

The 6-0, 206-pound Parker believes the daily workouts against the trio throughout organized team activities (OTAs), training camp and practices will only help Monday night when the defense faces the Patriots star tight end.

“Those guys are big,” Parker said of his tight end teammates. “They can run, they have good hands and they also use their body well on the field as well. It’s going to carry over and help us out a lot as a defense and secondary to guard Gronkowski.”

Cornerback Marcus Cooper, who measures 6-2, 192 pounds, echoed Parker.

“The guys that we have here are great,” Cooper said. “Very athletic, very strong guys and big bodies. They give us a good pretest of what we’re going to see in the game. Going against these guys all year helps us prepare for a guy like him.”