Jack Del Rio on Washington's challenge of stopping Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski

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Ethan Cadeaux
·4 min read
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Del Rio on the challenge AB and Gronk present for Washington originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

This past summer, with the Washington Football Team desperately needing a wide receiver to pair opposite of Terry McLaurin, head coach Ron Rivera was asked about the idea of signing former Steelers star and then-free agent Antonio Brown.

Rivera shot down the idea, calling Brown "a great player" but saying he didn't want to "stunt the growth" of any of his young wideouts.

Several months later, Brown is now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who the Burgundy and Gold are set to face on Saturday in Washington's first playoff game since 2015.

Speaking with local media on Thursday, Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio praised Brown for what he's been able to do in just eight weeks with the Bucs.

“We understand he’s a really, really good football player and very explosive," Del Rio said. "Since the bye, his production has really spiked. He is heavily involved. They’re continuing to do things with him that he’s good at. It’s like anything, they’re growing as they go, and building on it. We’ll have to be ready for them. He’s got quickness, route-running ability, he can get off the ball. He’s a good player.”

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Stopping Brown, who's been arguably Tom Brady's favorite target over the past month of the season, will be one of the biggest keys for Washington to pull off the upset this weekend.

Putting an emphasis on No. 81 will become an even bigger deal if wideout Mike Evans is unable to play for Tampa Bay. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said Evans is a true game-time decision on Saturday after the Pro Bowler hyperextended his knee last week against Atlanta.

If Evans isn't able to play, Brown won't be the only receiver Brady will look to target often. In addition to Brown, the Buccaneers still have Chris Godwin -- a 2019 Pro Bowler -- producing at a high level this season, too.

Besides finding a way to slow down the production of the Bucs' trio of wideouts, Del Rio's unit will need to devise a plan to stop tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has the best chemistry with Brady of any pass-catcher on Tampa's roster.

Asked about Gronkowski, Del Rio sounded more concerned about how his group plans to stop the 31-year-old tight end than any of Brady's other targets.

“It’s a big challenge," Del Rio said. "Obviously, anytime you’re going against Gronk, you understand that he’s a complete tight end. He’s a guy that blocks, runs routes, catches, does a little bit of everything."

Entering the 2020 season, how productive Gronkowski would be for the Buccaneers was a big question mark. The tight end had retired and been away from football for over a calendar year, but the opportunity to reunite with Brady not in New England was too good of an opportunity for him to pass up.

Although his receptions (45) and receiving yards (623) on the season were a bit below his career averages, Gronkowski more than proved he can still play at a high level. The tight end also hauled in seven touchdowns on the season, which tied with Godwin for the second-most on the team.

Arguably more impressive, though, is that Gronkowski also played in all 16 games for Tampa Bay, something he hadn't done in a single season since 2011, his second year in the NFL. And by playing in every game, the former Patriots star also re-established himself as one of the best blocking tight ends in football.

"I think, in his prime, he’s probably as dominant of a blocker as you’ll see at the tight end position," Del Rio said. "He may not be as dominant, but he’s still pretty darn good. He’s a complete player."

Gronkowski might not be as athletic or dominant as he once was, but Del Rio knows he'll be a difficult matchup for Washington's defense come Saturday evening.

"Some tight ends you match up and you’re worried about and they’re good receivers," Del Rio said. "Some guys are good blockers and they’re not receivers. I think he’s a blend. He’s been a really good player for a long time."