EAGLES BRACE FOR SPOTLIGHT AND THE BRADY-GRONK ASSAULT
MINNEAPOLIS: This comment is as obvious as any story lead you will read this week…The Eagles secondary will face its toughest task of the season when they face Tom Brady and his receivers in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (6:30 PM ET NBC).
That New England Patriots veteran corps includes All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who Thursday was cleared for full practice and is expected to play Sunday against the Eagles.
“I’m cleared and I’m ready to roll,” Gronkowski announced to a horde of media types packed in front of his riser Thursday. “I’m full speed, taking on hits, blocking and running routes…whatever they want.”
Gronkowski said there was never a doubt in his mind – literally – that he was going to play against Philadelphia.
“I knew I was going to be playing the whole time,” Gronkowski said. “But I was just obviously being cautious too. I didn’t want to jump back into [practice] right away. I think we did the process really well with the training staff and the doctors we have. I think they did a great job with getting me back on the field…I prepared myself to be ready. I can tell it’s going good and I’m just happy to be back out there with the boys.”
No one on the Eagles expected anything different.
“Oh, he’s playing,” Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson said earlier in the day. “And he’s more than a handful.”
Even with the threat “Gronk” poses in the open field, Robinson said the Eagles defense was not planning on any major changes.
“We just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing all year,” Robinson said. “We just have to keep our technique and the way we play. I’m not saying he’s not a great, great player…he’s a future Hall of Famer…but we have to do the same things we’ve been doing all year. We have to try not to overdo things. A lot of times when you have one great player you may try to double him and change your whole scheme just for that one player, I think that gets you in trouble. Our scheme that we play all year, we need to take it up another level and we’ll have a good chance of winning.”
The Patriots have a solid receiving corps in Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, but not spectacular on its own. What makes this unit tough is what Gronkowski brings to the table: double teams, physical play and terrific hands in small places.
Cooks talked about the Pats tight end…but not much.
“He just does a great job…he’s dependable, we trust him and as a teammate that’s all you can ask for out of another guy,” Cooks said Thursday. “He goes out there and plays his heart out and you have to respect that.”
When asked how his physical play can help the scheme of the receivers Cooks stopped, smiled and said.
“You’ll have to find that out on Sunday.”
Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Birds have a healthy respect for Gronkowski.
“He’s not like the other big tight ends in the league,” Jenkins said at his riser Thursday. “He’s not running possession routes, he’s stretching the field. You may have him covered but Tom (Brady) is always throwing him open. The thing is you can’t let [Brady] throw over you to him, if he makes catches in front of you, we can live with that, get him on the ground…but you can’t let him get behind you.”
Eagles other outstanding safety Rodney McLeod at length about the Eagles philosophy in the secondary, and the Brady-Gronkowski puzzle that is the key to winning the first-ever Lombardi trophy in Eagles history.
“He just brings that physicality to that offense,” McLeod said. “He’s a huge target for Tom Brady. He’s physical, he’s hard to bring down. So we have to do a good job disrupting him, giving him different looks, play him with good technique and when he does get the ball make sure that we get him on the ground and make secure tackles.
“He’s a dynamic tight end, one of the best in the game for a reason,” McLeod continued. “He’s a red zone target for [Brady] and we’re going to have to be on high alert for him. He definitely helps out with that inside game that Tom Brady loves to throw.”
Linebacker Nigel Bradham has played against Brady and Gronkowski several times when he was with the Buffalo Bills.
Bradham and the other linebackers will be counted on to help keep Gronkowski from catching passes in stride and getting behind defenders where he does the most damage.
“You see his versatility,” Bradham said. “He’s able to use his body, he knows how to box you out and use his body to separate him and the guy from the ball. That’s where he creates the missmatch. He’s a lot bigger than any other DBs and linebackers he plays against. So his advantage is being able to use his body to position himself between you and the ball and make a play.”
McLeod talked about keeping the magnitude of the game out his mind and making sure he is lazer focused on the task at hand.
“It’s just about keeping things in perspective,” McLeod said Thursday. “And understanding that at the end of the day, everything about it has heightened. There are more people watching, there are just two teams left. What’s on the line is the ‘W.’ It’s the same game we’ve been playing all year. They’re going to run their plays, we’re going to run our defense. We’re going to still prepare the same way and I think when you keep it in that perspective of the game, it makes it a lot easier.
“All you do is go out and just worry about doing your job the best way that you can,” McLeod continued. “I think that’s our approach from our entire team on how we’re approaching this game. Just go out there and do what you’ve been doing all year and play our style of defense, offense and special teams. If we do that we should be fine.”
“We’re focused on the job we came here to do,” Robinson said. “You try not to worry about the crowd, that’s kind of hard but we want to stay focused on what we’re here to do and that’s to play football.”
Part of their job is help defensive tackles Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen get that push up the middle and get in Brady’s face.
Bradham talked about what the linebackers need to do.
“For us, it’s being able to get them one-on-one,” Bradham said, referring to the Eagles defensive linemen. “Our job as linebackers to get the double teams off our interior guys to create situations for them. ”
McLeod was asked how can the secondary help the front line get pressure on Brady?
“For us, it’s to take away his first reads, his first looks” McLeod said. “We want to try to slow down his timing because he does get the ball out so quickly. If we take his first reads away, it will give our D-line a little bit more time. D-line and coverage work hand-in-hand so if we do our job in the back end, those guys benefit and vice-versa.”
Robinson was asked if he would be in the same mindset he was in against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game when he told teammates before the start, that if he got an interception that he “was not going out of bounds.” He kept his word. Robinson picked off Case Keenum in the first quarter, then weaved his way 50 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
“Absolutely,” Robinson said without hesitation. “If I get an interception, I’m really trying to score. I’m trying to put my team in the best position to win. I’m just doing my job, doing things like that. That’s what I’m here for. That’s me being a teammate…being accountable. I try to make it simple like that.”
Bradham was asked if he liked the game plan defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was installing against the Pats.
“We love it,” Bradham said. “We’re ready to execute. We’re well prepared. We have a great understanding of what we want to do. We know how they want to attack us. We’re confident we’ve got a great game plan, all we have to execute it. We determine everything.” *
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii