Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski offers a unique set of challenges to the Redskins defense, which is focused on communicating and fundamentals as the game plan for him.
As the Redskins finished their preparation for the Buccaneers two weeks ago, and as thoughts began to drift towards the Bye Week, practice squad tight end Je'Ron Hamm was already thinking about this week.
"Right before the bye week I was like, 'When we come back, I'ma be Gronk, so I know the ball's going to be coming my way a lot.'"
One of Hamm's primary responsibilities on the practice squad is to mimic an opposing tight end from the upcoming team on the schedule. With the Patriots game around the corner, Hamm, the lone scout team tight end, has done his best to channel New England's Rob Gronkowski. This is no easy task, though it's promised him many reps in the offense.
"Defense is doing a good job," Hamm said. "It's a battle out there, so they're doing a good job there looking ready and I'm out there just going as hard as I can trying to get them ready."
Gronkowski is not particularly the easiest player to mimic, considering the Patriots tight end is three inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier than Hamm.
"He's not as big as Gronk obviously," safety Trenton Robinson said of Hamm. "But he's a bigger body and he'll go up for balls and make good catches. Just having a guy like that to be able to practice with is good for all of us in the secondary."
Gronkowski, by virtue of his stats alone, promises to give the Redskins defensive backs a lot to deal with as they fine tune their game plan for the No. 1 offense in the league. He leads all tight ends with 646 receiving yards and seven touchdowns and is tied for the lead in receptions with 40. His quarterback, Tom Brady, has targeted him 63 times, the most targets of any tight end in the league this season.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' defense and special teams preparing for their Week 9 match up against the New England Patriots Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
One of the challenges is finding where he is on the field. The Patriots are notorious for creating mismatches with their weapons, and the benefit to having such a versatile tight end like Gronkowski is positioning him anywhere on the field.
Through seven games, Gronkowski has dominated on first downs, collecting 488 yards, 82 of which have come split out to the left, like a wide receiver. That's when Brady can prey on one-on-one matchups in which Gronkowski typically has a significant height advantage. He usually wins those battles as long as the ball is thrown high enough to win a jump contest.
"Tom [Brady] does an excellent job of finding the singles. He feels confident that those who are singled will win and they have been winning for him," head coach Jay Gruden said. "It's a great challenge. I think you just have to try and mix up the looks. Whether you play man-to-man, double somebody, you have to change up your intent, have good disguises. Ultimately it comes down to pass rush."
"He's such a big body," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "Normally when you got guys that big they don't catch the ball as well, they don't run routes as well, but I mean to be that big and still run routes like a receiver man, he's a special talent. Probably the best tight end in the league and I think he's shown that."
Safety Kyshoen Jarrett, who has played the majority of his snaps as a nickel cornerback, doesn't expect to face Gronkowski – he'll likely have Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola duties – but doesn't want to get caught up in adapting everything towards one player.
"We are just playing within in the structure of our own defense. I feel like that's what benefits us on its own," Jarrett said. "We don't have to step outside ourselves because [of Gronkowski's] size and what he provides to an offense, but I just feel like from what I've seen, our defense will do its job."
Robinson plans to deal with Gronkowski the most, but is following the same mindset.
More than anything, when the Patriots offer four receivers on the field, including Gronkowski, Robinson's communication with his cornerbacks will be at its most pressing.
"This is a huge communication game," Robinson said. "All games you've really got to communicate but they just do some unorthodox formations when they line guys up. It will be real big for us to get our call and get lined up so that we can see who's in what spot. 'Is Gronk out at 1? Is Edelman, whatever?' So that will be huge for us."
Linebackers can offer some resistance by doing as much chipping at the start of a play as they can, but as linebacker Ryan Kerrigan admitted, "once [Gronkowski] gets a full head of steam, he's really tough to deal with."
In other words, the Redskins will have to be nearly perfect, specifically in their tackling, with which defensive coordinator Joe Barry has not been very pleased the last few games.
"I'd say as high as 85 percent of the plays we've given up have simply been on missed tackles," Barry said. "They've got playmakers – 87 [Gronkowski] and 29 [Blount], those are tough guys to tackle just because of their size… Tackling is at a premium every week, but especially this week when you play against an offense like we're playing against."