PHOENIX » On some point Sunday it will happen. At least everyone hopes it happens.
The biggest, most athletic tight end in football will be running downfield and be met in a full-speed collision with the hardest-hitting strong safety in the game today.
What will happen when the NFL’s version of Thunderdome comes to the Super Bowl, featuring Rob Gronkowski in one corner and Kam Chancellor in the other?
"I don’t know. I’ll be sitting there with popcorn," Seattle’s Richard Sherman said. "It’ll be good football."
There are a bevy of important individual matchups when New England and Seattle meet on Sunday. Will Tom Brady throw at Sherman? Can the Patriots’ defensive front slow down Marshawn Lynch? What about LeGarrette Blount trying to run against the best defense in the NFL?
All those factors could matter in the final outcome. Trumping them all might be whether Chancellor and the Seahawks are able to keep Gronkowski under control.
Even the NFL anticipated the potential matchup: Both Gronkowski and Chancellor sat at the same podium on media day.
"I guess it was destiny. It was destiny for us to have the same seat," Chancellor said.
While Seattle nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane said last week that he didn’t think Gronkowski was that good, most of the Seahawks have been respectful of his skill.
Gronkowski might have been better in 2011, but considering the injuries he’s overcome, 2014 could be his most impressive season. He had 51 receptions and eight touchdowns in the final eight games of the regular season and another 10 receptions and two scores already in the playoffs. Only once this season did Gronkowski have fewer than three catches in a game.
"Aw man, Beast Mode. He’s an animal, man," New England wide receiver Brandon LaFell said stealing a phrase normally used to describe Lynch. "When you put a corner on him, he’s too small. When you put a safety on him, he’s too slow, man. You know, when Gronk is out there doing his thing he is demanding a double team and if he’s not being double teamed, he’s out there making plays for us."
The difference with Seattle is they have Chancellor — a safety with a linebacker build and cornerback speed — who can match up with Gronkowski. Many felt it was Chancellor and not Malcolm Smith that should have been Super Bowl MVP a year ago. It was Chancellor’s hit on Demaryius Thomas on Denver’s second possession that set the tone for Seattle’s rout.
"That hit alone could have gotten him Super Bowl MVP," Sherman said.
Seattle struggled earlier in the season defending tight ends, breaking from a trend of being able to shut down elite players at that position in the past. San Diego’s Antonio Gates caught three touchdowns in Week 2 against Seattle and Oakland’s Mychal Rivera had eight catches and two TDs in early November.
Those performances were outliers. Against most elite tight ends, Seattle has been at its best. In two games last season against New Orleans, Jimmy Graham had a combined four catches for 50 yards against the Seahawks. Vernon Davis hasn’t caught more than three passes against Seattle in five games over the past two seasons. Julius Thomas was limited four catches for all of 27 yards in last year’s Super Bowl romp.
"They definitely have an image of being physical. They’ve got an image of coming out and being ready to dominate," Gronkowski said.
Why is Seattle so good at defending tight ends? A lot of credit falls to Chancellor. His size, speed and strength can counter the matchup problems many tight ends create.
But the rest of Seattle’s defensive scheme was formulated so Chancellor is not alone. Especially when Seattle is playing zone defense, responsibility is placed on linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner to cover those "hook areas" as defensive coordinator Dan Quinn calls it, where tight ends often roam.
"You have to have the speed to play when the quarterback throws it how fast can you close and make the tackle. I think the speed and the length of K.J. in specific, allows him to do that and Bobby, his instincts to know after the ball is thrown, we’ve all seen the speed that he has to close," Quinn said. "And then when we play man-to-man, both of those guys are able to match up, whether it be on tight ends or backs, again due to their speed and cover ability. I think it’s a combination of the way we play zone, their speed to do it, their quarterback keys and the ability for them to play in man-to-man."