It was the one topic Seattle’s linebackers likely heard every minute of every day for two weeks leading up to Super Bowl 49.
How would they deal with ginormous-bodied, quick-moving New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, arguably the best at his position in the NFL with 60 career touchdown receptions?
Well, both sides got their licks in — except in the end, Gronkowski’s team won the Super Bowl, 28-24, on Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Not very often did the Seahawks play man-to-man defense against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Whenever they did, Brady’s eyes lit up and his arm suddenly found its range for Gronkowski.
In those instances, Gronkowski was usually matched up against a linebacker. Most of the time, he won with ease.
Gronkowski’s lone touchdown came on a fly route down the right sideline. Linebacker K.J. Wright, who has had his difficulties in coverage against other tight ends, got caught flat-footed on Gronkowski’s shake-and-bake move.
“I just attacked (Wright) and gave him a little move and got outside,” Gronkowski said.
Once Gronkowski got a step on Wright, he easily corralled Brady’s 22-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Patriots a 14-7 lead.
“We did everything that we always do (covering tight ends) — all of our change-ups,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “They did a great job. They got us one time outside. We tried to keep that from happening, but that one ball got us.”
Round two went the other way — to the Seattle defense.
This time, Brady tried connecting with his All-Pro tight end on a crossing route. Linebacker Bobby Wagner knew he had help over the top from cornerback Byron Maxwell, so he undercut the route — and plucked the pass out of the air for an interception.
The turnover set up Seattle’s final touchdown — Russell Wilson’s 3-yard pass to Doug Baldwin with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“Just tried to do whatever I could to help the team win,” Wagner said.
But in crunch time, on the Patriots’ game-winning drive, Gronkowski would not be denied.
He beat linebacker Bruce Irvin on a 25-yard catch that got the offense in Seattle territory. And two plays later, he victimized Wright again, this time for a 12-yard gain. The Patriots eventually scored on Brady’s short touchdown strike to Julian Edelman with 2:02 remaining.
“(Gronkowski) was a factor,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “They found different ways to match up with different guys.”
After the game, the last guy Wagner wanted to talk about was Gronkowski. When asked to size up the New England star’s game, he solemnly offered five nondescriptive words.
“He had a good game,” Wagner said.
And in the end, the upper hand.
“Gronk really had a big night,” New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, “on a few of those snaps.”