ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Rams defense has one more major tight end matchup in the final game of the season and it's the proven veteran, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski is a four-time All-Pro and most recently received the honor last season, when the tight end caught eight touchdown passes en route to Super Bowl LII. Despite a career-low three TDs, he's back in the big game for a fifth time and looking for a third ring. Locking down Gronk in Super Bowl LIII could be critical to the Rams hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.
"Definitely a tough cover — best tight end in the game," cornerback Aqib Talib said this week. "He's big, he's fast, he's got great hands, he's physical, and he's got a Hall of Fame quarterback."
Check out photos from practice as the Los Angeles Rams prepare to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
While quarterback Tom Brady will likely get the ball to where it needs to be, and Gronkowski's nine years of finding his way into the end zone 79 times speaks to his skillset, Talib, a former teammate of Gronkowski, mentioned what perhaps sets the five-time Pro Bowler apart — his size.
Second-year safety John Johnson, who will likely be forced to deal with the 6-foot-6, 265-pound New Yorker on Sunday said the challenge of facing Gronk is his size, calling it an automatic mismatch.
"It's just a big catch radius," Johnson said. "The quarterback doesn't have to be too precise when you throw to him — you can pretty much put it anywhere and he'll go get it. So I mean, working around him will be hard."
Johnson and the Rams went up against some of the league's best tight ends in 2018, in fact Gronkowski will be the seventh of the league's top-10 tight ends in terms of total yards receiving to face the Rams this season. Before facing tight ends like George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Jimmy Graham, the Rams kicked off their Super Bowl LIII campaign Week 1 against Oakland's Jared Cook, who Johnson said most closely resembles Gronkowski.
"He was huge. He was bigger than he looked on tape," Johnson said. "I haven't seen Gronk in person, but I've been hearing things like, 'He makes Jared Cook look like a little kid.'"
Tight ends like Cook and Kelce each went over 100 yards receiving against the Rams, and each of them nearly mirror Gronkowski's build. Cook is listed at 6-foot-5 254 pounds, Kelce at 6-foot-5, 260.
"The one-on-one matchups provide challenges," head coach Sean McVay said, before backing up his claim with evidence of a 3rd-and-10 successful slant route by the veteran in the AFC Championship game. "You know obviously even if Rob's covered he's got the ability to make those contested catches."
Johnson was a junior in high school when Gronk played in his first playoff game and he's had nothing but success as Brady's sidekick since. Approaching the challenge of going against one of the best tight ends of all time in the Super Bowl, Johnson said he just has to check his reflection before leaving the team hotel.
"Yeah, I mean, I've just got to look in the mirror — I'm an NFL player, too. I'm a professional. I've got dreams, I've got goals. I want to be great just like he is," Johnson said. "So it's going to be a good competition.