Can Saints Linebackers Stop “Gronk” and Top-Rated Tampa Tight Ends in Week #1?

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original Photo by Julio Aguilar)

As the New Orleans Saints continue making preparations at Training Camp for the upcoming 2020 NFL Season and their opening contest on September 13th at the Superdome against their NFC South Division rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, head coach Sean Payton and the team’s coaching staff undoubtedly have already began installing their game-plan for that highly anticipated match-up, in every single aspect possible.

One aspect that will be vitally-important is just how well the team’s recently rebuilt linebacker corps under the leadership of new Saints LB position coach Michael Hodges, can successfully defend (and hopefully stop) the top-rated Tampa Bay tight end group — which this year now features “Gronk”, a.k.a former All-Pro Rob Gronkowski — who almost nearly by himself, single-handedly embarrassed the entire New Orleans defense the last time that he faced them.

As most Who Dat fans are aware, the 31-year old Gronkowski recently came out of retirement after previously winning Super Bowl championships 3-times  with the New England Patriots, to play for the Bucs and their new starting QB (and his former Pats teammate and a 6-time champion Super Bowl champion himself): recently-turned 43-year old living legend Tom Brady.

But yet it just so happens that the last time that Brady and Gronkowski were actually together in NOLA, things didn’t exactly end up all too well for the Black and Gold on that particular day.

Some loyal Saints supporters might recall that it was back during Week #2 of the 2017 Season three years ago, when the famous duo combined to hook up for six receptions, which included an incredible 53-yard catch-and-run to highlight Gronk’s 116-yard performance before he eventually left the game in the 2nd half with a groin injury.

That ultimately led to a 36-20 New England victory and although the Saints haven’t faced him since, it was clearly obvious that the Saints linebacking corps in particular struggled on that day to adequately cover Gronkowski, who notably in that game was able to take then-rookie Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone to school.

Essentially, Anzalone got torched in pass coverage and was burned by Gronkowski on his long touchdown reception from Brady (he actually fell down twice) while seemingly getting caught a step behind the Patriots’ big plays time and time again continually, in that rather forgettable contest for the Black and Gold on that day.

Fortunately for the Saints, Anzalone has improved dramatically since that point in time, and with current All-Pro Demario Davis having joined the team the following year in 2018, the Saints LB’s should be much better prepared (hopefully) for Gronkowski this time around when they meet once again at the Superdome in a little over 2 more weeks from now.

Photo Credits: New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on

Davis has emerged to become one of the very best linebackers in the entire NFL since coming to New Orleans, and now is joined by a much more-experienced, improved, and finally-healthy Anzalone (who has had an outstanding Training Camp thus far) along with impressive young rookie Zack Baun; and the Saints starting LB’s will be tasked with stopping Gronkowski and his other top-rated Buccaneers teammates at the TE position: the talented tandem of OJ Howard and Cameron Brate.

As a 3-man trio, there might not be a better group of players at the tight end position that’s ever been assembled on one NFL team, that rivals all three of those players collectively.

That said, there is some skepticism among more than just a few NFL observers that “The Gronk” can or will have the same sort of success against the Saints linebackers this time around, in the same way that he did in the Superdome that very last time.

Gronkowski had been slowed in his last few seasons by a series of nagging injuries that ultimately led him to deciding to retire, after the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII (53) over the Rams following the 2018 Season.

Word is that he’s now back in playing shape and ready to essentially pick back up where he left off two years ago; although it remains to be seen just how effective he can be after a year-and-a-half layoff from the rigors and physical contact of the NFL.

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers on

Nevertheless, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians is among those who feel that “Gronk” has been rejuvenated by his arrival in Tampa and the opportunity to play alongside Brady.

“The back surgeries have healed. So he had a year of healing. He looks to me like he was five or six years ago,” Arians said to ESPN Buccaneers beat writer Jenna Laine late last week.

“He doesn’t have a gigantic elbow brace on. He’s moving. He’s running fast again. He’s got great body control,” Arians said to Laine. “Some of the things — the stiffness that I saw at the end of his career with all the injuries — it looks like it’s gone.”

Laine notes in her article that Gronkowski clearly remains as Brady’s “go-to target”, whether it’s tossing the ball in warm-ups or during 11-on-11 team periods, where he’s been on the receiving end of a few deep Brady passes and has made several ‘big plays’ in the red zone in Bucs Training Camp.

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers on

“I’m feeling good out there,” Gronkowski said to Laine and the rest of Bucs Media last week. “My body feels good — that’s why I came back to the game, and that’s how I want to be moving. I want to be moving like how I was back in the day, no doubt about that. Why … would I want to come back to the game and be moving like poop? I’m here to move; I’m here to make plays; I’m here to block in the run game; I’m here to make plays in the pass game.”

“Let me tell you, at first, the first couple practices, it definitely felt a little weird,” Gronkowski added. “The game was really fast when I first got out there again; the defense felt really fast. And as time goes on, as the days go on, I feel better about myself being out there. My confidence keeps going up; the game’s slowing down; I’m starting to pick up the offense more. But overall, it’s going good, but I’ve got so much more to work on and so much more to improve on; but I am really glad to be here, man.”

Prior to his arrival in Tampa, Gronkowski’s injury history had been a notable one prior to his retirement after the Super Bowl win over the Rams two years ago. Those injuries included forearm and spinal fractures, a high ankle sprain and a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee.

Laine reports that it’s for that very reason why the Bucs medical and training staff plans to monitor his reps throughout the remainder of their Training Camp as well as during the regular season itself, so that “Gronk” doesn’t get too worn down.

“I’ll play the whole entire game if I have to,” Gronkowski said. “I don’t see why that would be a problem; I’ve never not played basically every snap in my career. But if it’s not the whole entire game, if they pull me out for some snaps, some rest, I’m cool with whatever the coaches’ game plan is.”

One additional benefit for the Buccaneers by signing Gronkowski this past off-season has been the guidance and mentorship that he’s been able to provide to his fellow tight ends, specifically 4th year tight end OJ Howard.

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers on

The former University of Alabama All-American TE has been learning and absorbing as much information as he possibly can from the former Super Bowl champ, and Arians told members of the Bucs Media after a recent practice that the 25-year old is taking it all in very well thus far.

“I think the biggest thing for O.J. was just learning what we’re trying to teach. That’s a very difficult position in this scheme and he’s come in and he’s got a great handle on it right now,” Arians said. “I think Rob’s helped him confidence-wise – seeing how good he is and telling him how good he is. When you’ve got a guy like Gronkowski and [Tom] Brady telling you you’re good, you’re probably pretty good. I think that’s helped, but he’s playing really, really well right now.”

For his part, Howard has been an eager and willing learner and says that the advice he’s gotten up to this point from “Gronk”, has helped him quite a lot and in a variety of different ways.

“We’ve already made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas as far as he’s helping us out a lot in the run game with his footwork and just different things in routes that he used over the years to help him get open,” Howard said when speaking of how much of an impact that Gronkowski has already made upon him personally.

“Just being on the field with him, us together has been a big mismatch. It’s hard to cover a lot of guys like that when we’re on the field together – it’s just hard to stop that. It’s going to open up a lot of things for everyone and I think it should be real fun.”

Unfortunately for the Saints linebackers, it won’t be very fun in two weeks from now at the Superdome, with the task of having to cover Gronkowski, Howard, or the 29-year old and 6th year veteran Brate; who is Tampa Bay’s former starter at the tight end position and now might probably be considered as the best-ever 3rd string tight end in the entire history of Pro Football.

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers on (Original Credit: Kim Klement)

It goes without saying that the Saints coaching staff is well aware of the challenge that the entire Bucs tight end group will present for them at the Superdome in just two weeks from this Sunday, and from Gronkowski in particular on the receiving end from passes being thrown by Brady; who some long-time NFL observers regard as the greatest QB of all-time in the League’s entire 101-year history.

“Here’s the good news: The good news is, and I say this in all seriousness, is man, there’s only about 10 or 11 relevant teams (currently in the NFL),” Payton said in an exclusive interview prior to Training Camp.

“And I think you’re on point, not only Tom but also [Rob] Gronkowski. When someone like Tom comes there, it’s not just the quarterback position. The thing as a coach in the division that concerns you, is you know just the standard’s going to change [in Tampa], and I think that’s a credit to the really, really, really special players.”

Payton has yet to make any specific comments regarding the upcoming season-opener against the Buccaneers since the beginning of Camp, while the focus has been primarily on getting the team ready for the season.

(Photo Credit: Garland Gillen, WVUE-FOX 8 NOLA)

But make no mistake about this much: he along with Hodges and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, are certainly making all of the necessary preparations as they get ready to face Gronkowski and the rest of the dangerous Bucs offense, when the season officially kicks off on September 13th.

The Saints linebacker corps should be more than ready that afternoon to take on “Gronk” and his top-rated Tampa Bay teammates at tight end — and after being almost single-handedly beaten by him the very last time at the Superdome — certainly hope they can stop him this time around….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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