|New England Patriot's Rob Gronkowski|
The New England Patriots are sweating on the fitness of Rob Gronkowski ahead of Super Bowl XLVI this weekend against the New York Giants.
Gronkowski is yet to practice after injuring his ankle in the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens.
After a season in which he established himself as the best tight end in the league, the second-year player has become the second most important player on the Patriots' roster.
Outside of Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady and Wes Welker, Gronkowski is the only player who could be argued to be best in the league amongst his peers. During the season, he set multiple records for touchdowns, 17, for tight ends and yards with 1,327.
Despite only being 22 years of age, Gronkowski is Tom Brady's number one target. Even though Wes Welker led the team in receptions and yardage, Gronkowski is the first option that defenses look to take away from Brady.
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Because of his size and agility, no player in the NFL has been able to match up to Gronkowski one-on-one. Against the Giants in the regular season, in a losing effort, Gronkowski had eight receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Even though Gronkowski eclipsed 100 yards and put a touchdown on the board, the Giants were happy to contain him and let Wes Welker attempt to beat them. The Giants committed two players to Gronkowski more often than not including on Deon Grant's interception of Tom Brady.
Welker may be a leading receiver in the NFL, but he is not an overwhelming matchup issue for the Giants. With their pass rush, the Giants won't need to commit defenders to blitz Brady which will allow them to flood the field with defenders in zone coverage.
Even in man coverage, Welker can be shut down. In the Patriots other notable loss from the regular season, Ike Taylor alone covered Welker and reduced him to 39 yards in total.
The Giants have one of the most underrated cover cornerbacks in the NFL in Corey Webster. Webster is an agile, intelligent veteran who matches up well to the skill set of Welker. Without Gronkowski in the line up, the Giants would be able to match Webster to Welker and give him safety help forcing Brady to look to Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch and company to put points on the board.
Branch and Hernandez are good players, but Kenny Philips is talented enough to stick with Hernandez, while Branch could be contained by rookie Prince Amukamara and a rejuvenated Aaron Ross.
The loss of Gronkowski, or even a Gronkowski at 75 percent, would have a knock-on effect on the whole of the Patriots' offense.
The Patriots offense is based on matchups. With two quality tight ends, the Patriots look to line up in two tight end sets with receivers to either side. This allows them a perfect balance to either run the ball or pass from the formation.
With Gronkowski playing in that formation, defenses are forced to show their hand. Defenses are always looking to play their nickel defense against Tom Brady, but because of Gronkowski's blocking ability, Brady will happily just hand the ball off in the running game and repeatedly erode the defense.
If the defense stays in its base grouping, then Gronkowski is generally matched up with a linebacker who won't be able to stay with him. The Giants will likely employ a three safety formation with Deon Grant, Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle.
Rolle, Philips and Grant are the best three teammates at the safety position in the NFL. Phillips in particular will likely be asked to trail Gronkowski on the field, presuming he is at 100 percent. If he is not, the Giants won't need to worry about adjusting their coverages or formations.
Without Gronkowski, the Patriots' matchup advantage disappears.
As do their chances of winning their fourth Super Bowl in the last decade.Tweeting @Cianaf