One defense allowed 64 catches for 626 yards and 11 touchdowns to opposing tight ends over the course of the regular season.
One tight end caught 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns over the course of 15 games.
The production between the Seattle Seahawks’ defense and the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski will be tested on Feb. 1. And it will be for the first time since 2012, when strong safety Kam Chancellor along with linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner limited the tight end to six catches for 61 yards.
But there will be more names to account for when Gronkowski lines up in the seam or out wide in Super Bowl XLIX. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound All-Pro could face the likes of free safety Earl Thomas or cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell there in Glendale.
Only it’s hard to say for certain just what or whom he’ll face. Much has changed between them since they last met. Much will come down to just where Gronkowski goes and how the Seahawks counter him.
One of the lone certainties is Seattle’s defense. It’s long, fast and physical. It’s also territorial in the way it matches up with tight ends from one pass play to the next.
The most significant blemish on its resume this season was a three-touchdown performance from San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates in Week 2, a game where one-on-one matchups and some improvisation parlayed into an upset. But Chancellor has different plans for Week 22.
The man who devoted much of the 2012 encounter covering Gronkowski is expected to do so once again.
The former Virginia Tech corner, rover and free safety has been named to two Pro Bowls and was nearly named MVP of the Super Bowl since he last played a snap versus Gronkowski.
Yet time hasn’t changed ability. Chancellor still plays like a centerfielder in a linebacker’s body. And, in a sense, he is the best of both. Chancellor should assume some jurisdiction on the “Y” target when the Seahawks are in zone this time around. He is sudden to diagnose the route concepts under that capacity.
His teammates on the second level, Wright and Wagner, are as well. And so is Thomas in the deep middle. They function as one both inside, outside and overhead for a heavy dose of Cover-3, while the corners press the outskirts even if the title of the coverage suggests otherwise.
But it all starts inside and heads on out.
Chancellor could receive help from defensive linemen and linebackers residing there, rerouting Gronkowski off the snap and as others pick him up from five yards back and in the deep middle. The play stays in front of them by doing so, and affords Chancellor a chance to get downhill the same way he does when blowing up run blocks.
Even so, getting hands on Gronkowski is simple in theory and isn’t in the game. Few teams have been able to beat him to the punch. Though if he splits out wide or moves into the seam, that emphasis could change for the Seahawks.
Maxwell and Sherman could be called upon to play their respective halves of the field then if the Seahawks give Gronkowski the benefit of the doubt. The tight end has been known to fight for his share of quick slants over the middle from that location; both corners have been known to make quick reads on them.
How prevalent that is turned to remains one of many questions facing both the Seahawks and Patriots. Most of which won’t be determined until after the 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
It could still come down to Gronkowski seeing his share of one-on-one coverage opposite Chancellor. However that transpires, it eventually will. What happens thenceforth is as good as the next throw.
The Seahawks did have some trouble against Green Bay Packers rookie tight end Richard Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game, as the underneath ground was vacated with zone drops to protect the deep ball in three-wideout sets. But that kind of defense has been double-edged sword for the back-to-back conference champions.
For Seattle, it’s been about limiting the explosive play. Whether that be with hits at the line, bumps at the tops of routes, or simply keeping a trio of defenders beyond the receivers with discipline and identification, it’s worked to this juncture. It will just have to work harder against Gronkowski, whose agility is evidenced down the seam so much as his size is evidenced across the middle.
So for New England, it’s been about dictating matchups to find him. Whether that be with stacked receivers, ineligible receivers or motioned tight ends, it too has worked. It’s found weak links.
Versus Chancellor and the Seattle defense, there may not be one.