The New England Patriots have been, for all intense purposes, the leaders in bringing in the new era of hybrid tight ends. The New York Giants will put this new aspect of the NFL under major scrutiny this weekend in Super Bowl XLVI.
While Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates have previously altered the position, the Patriots are the first offense to build a passing attack based on the players they had at the position.
Regardless of Rob Gronkowski's health this weekend, the Patriots will be looking to both he and Aaron Hernandez to lead the team's passing attack. While Wes Welker led the team in receptions, and is the best slot corner in the NFL, it is impossible to build a passing attack around Welker as the team's number one receiver.
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Gronkowski, or Hernandez after him, are the biggest matchup threats for opposing defenses to handle.
When the game is broken down into Xs and Os, neither of the two tight ends can be captured as just another piece to contain. For the most part, Gronkowski, at 100 percent, has to be double-teamed if the defense is to have any hope of containing him.
Double teaming Gronkowski is what frees up guys like Welker, Branch and Hernandez to take advantage of single coverage.
For most teams, doubling Gronkowski, and Hernandez at times, is the only option available. The Giants aren't most teams.
While the Patriots are the first team to build an offense on their tight-ends, the Giants are the first team to pair two safeties together who are specifically built to compete with the new hybrid tight ends.
Even though Vernon Davis had a big game against Antrel Rolle in the NFC Championship, Rolle attested at today's media day in Indianapolis that that was just a once off poor performance from him. Rolle and his starting mate, Kenny Phillips, are two of the biggest and most physically gifted safeties in the NFL.
Rolle is a former cornerback who stands at 6-0 and around 200 lbs. He has great range and speed to stick with a player like Aaron Hernandez while not being overpowered by him.
His strong safety who starts across from him, Phillips, is even bigger. Phillips is listed at 6-2 and over 215 lbs. His athleticism and range is outstanding to the point that he can cover slot corners or even potentially move to the outside if asked. His sheer physical size and speed allows him to stick with tight ends even as big as Gronkowski.
Statistically, the Giants safeties will likely give up quite a bit to Gronkowski and Hernandez this Sunday, as they did in the regular season when both caught a touchdown pass and combined for over 100 yards.
However the very fact that they can line up in single coverage, and not force the defense to undergo major adjustments, prevents the Patriots offense from fully functioning. The Giants forced Tom Brady into three turnovers, two interceptions and a lost fumble, during their regular season meeting because Brady didn't have the favorable matchups he was looking for.
The Patriots offense is based on the matchups created by their tight ends throughout the whole offense. If they can prevent the team from flooding the middle, in turn taking away Wes Welker, or force the Patriots to run on base defenses, then the team cannot function to the elite level it is accustomed to.
With the Giants' depth in their secondary, Deon Grant, Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara and Aaron Ross are all playing well, the Giants can take away Tom Brady's chances at picking the defense apart and force him to hold onto the football.
Successfully shutting down Gronkowski and Hernandez is asking a lot for any team, containing them without sacrificing defensive integrity is what the Giants will be hoping to do with their extremely talented safeties.