BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — When Nick Foles first arrived on the University of Arizona campus in 2008, the talk of Tucson was a 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore with muscle rippling across his frame. By the time Foles was eligible to play the following season, Rob Gronkowski’s days at Arizona were numbered, a back injury sidelining the gargantuan tight end for what would have been his junior season. Still, the year that Foles spent watching from the sideline was a long-enough revelation.
“Back then, we knew he was a really, really special athlete,” Foles, now the Eagles quarterback, said on Tuesday afternoon. “Just the things he could do. Just an animal out there.”
Nearly 10 years later, the Eagles will take the field for Super Bowl LII with Gronkowski standing as a formidable obstacle between them and championship glory. At 28, he is already one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history, a four-time all-pro with career averages of 15.1 yards per reception and 70.4 yards per game. As a team, the Eagles have spent much of the last week-and-a-half reiterating the need to treat this like any other game. In Gronkowski, though, they must contend with an opponent who is unlike any other they’ve faced.
“He’s a physical specimen,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “Has good hands, runs good routes, and is a target in the red zone.”
A look back at the Eagles’ performance this year reveals causes for both comfort and concern. They finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed to opposing tight ends, while Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranked them right around average in defending the position.
The bulk of the damage opponents inflicted came in a handful of games. Two of the most gifted tight ends they faced came in two of their three losses, with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce catching eight passes for 103 yards in Week 2 and Seattle’s Jimmy Graham catching a touchdown pass in Seattle in Week 13.
There were some other notable breakdowns, most of them limited to a Week 7 win over the Redskins in which Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 12 catches and 131 yards.
For the most part, though, the Eagles’ defense against tight ends has served as a testament to the resilience that has typified their season. That Week 7 game also was when Jordan Hicks tore an Achilles, leaving Jim Schwartz’s unit without its best pass-coverage linebacker. At the time, it was fair to wonder whether the Eagles would be able to handle the ramifications. Yet they would go on to hold opponents to less than 200 passing yards in seven of their final nine games.
A major factor in that resilience has been Schwartz’s reliance on his three veteran safeties, with Corey Graham often coming off the bench to team with McLeod and allow Malcolm Jenkins to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Graham and Jenkins have both seen extensive action against tight ends, with Graham contributing a memorable breakup of a fourth-and-goal pass to the Giants’ Evan Engram to help preserve the Eagles’ win in Week 15 at New York.
For those who enjoy the X’s-and-O’s, it will be interesting to watch how Schwartz mixes up his coverages against the seemingly infinite personnel combinations deployed by Josh McDaniels and the Patriots’ offense.
“I think that’s our strong suit, our versatility all over the defense,” McLeod said. “Our packages, and guys being able to play multiple roles. That’s a big reason for our success this year. It’s a matchup-type league, and we have a lot of guys who are very versatile and can match up with a lot of guys in this league.”
In that sense, Jenkins might be the Eagles’ answer to Gronkowski. Maybe not from a one-on-one standpoint, or in terms of sheer physical prowess, but Schwartz’s ability to move his veteran safety all over the field has been one of his defense’s hallmarks this season.
“If I had the key, I wouldn’t say it today,” Jenkins said Tuesday. “That’s a tough matchup. He, in himself, is obviously a huge target, big body, knows how to use his body to get between you and the ball. And then, for a guy who’s that big, he’s running a ton of vertical routes, so he’s stretching the field. And when all else fails, Tom Brady can throw him open, and he catches anything that comes in his wingspan. It’s going to be a tough matchup, one that I’m looking forward to.”
The assumption that Gronkowski will be healthy enough to suit up seems to be a solid one. While the Patriots have said nothing official about his status since his concussion in the AFC championship game, the tight end himself told reporters on Tuesday evening that he thought he’d play.
“We’re just going to have to understand where he’s at and what they are trying to do based on where he lines up,” McLeod said, “play with good technique, and just compete.”