Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series that spotlights three Raiders-Patriots matchups to watch Sunday, 10 a.m., at Gilette Stadium.
Raiders SS Tyvon Branch vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski
Tale of the tape:
Branch (33): 6-feet, 210 pounds, seventh season, Connecticut
Gronkowski (87): 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, fifth season, Arizona
Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been an unstoppable force in the Patriots passing game. Health has been the main hindrance to that end, with injury setbacks dotting his first four NFL seasons. A knee injury held him back last year and this offseason, but Gronkowksi is slowly working into form.
He’s only played half the snaps in two games this season, but remains quarterback Tom Brady’s top target. He has eight catches for 72 yards and a touchdown, but could exceed that against the Raiders alone if he’s not monitored well.
Covering tight ends is generally shared between the weakside linebacker -– which should be Miles Burris is Sio can’t play -– and strong safety Tyvon Branch in the Raiders defense. Branch might be best suited to handle a hulking speedster like Gronkowski, though he poses matchup problems against virtually anyone.
Branch has been solid in run defense (save a few missed tackles) and decent in coverage, through that’s not his strong suit. The Raiders will have to be smart with scheme and execution to handle Gronkowski, even if his role remains reduced.
“It looks to me like they’re kind of paying attention to how many reps he’s getting,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen said.
“But, the reps that he’s getting, he’s been in there and been effective. They’re throwing him the football, he’s doing some things in the run game. He’s still an outstanding player and a big weapon for them and a real good target for the quarterback. So, when he’s in the game, we have to understand he’s in there and we’ve got to make sure we can take care of him.”