- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan was so sure that Rob Gronkowski would play against the New York Jets, he had young tight end Zach Sudfeld, dubbed "Baby Gronk" this summer, play the role of the Patriots tight end on the scout team all week.
"Like we said from day one, I assumed he'd play," Ryan said. "[And] I'm assuming [Tom] Brady will play. But that's how much we assumed this guy was going to play. I don't know if they were saving him for us or whatever, but I had a funny feeling he was going to play. After that first game, I felt for sure he'd play against us the second game."
On Friday morning, Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told reporters Gronkowski had been cleared to play after undergoing forearm and back procedures during the offseason.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end has been particularly effective against the Jets, and especially in the red zone. In his last three games against New York, Gronkowski has 21 catches for 222 yards and four touchdowns.
"That's where, in particular, he presents a huge problem," Ryan said. "He's 6-7 or whatever, and he goes up and gets it. We saw [Falcons tight end] Tony Gonzalez have success against us just as he's had against New England and everyone else. Those guys are hard to cover. Even when you think you've got them covered, they're still open just because of their size and catching radius."
The Jets have tapped safety Antonio Allen to cover Gronkowski. The team will get injured cornerbacks Dee Milliner (hamstring) and Kyle Wilson (concussion) back this week as well, strengthening the backfield.
Still, Allen sees that he is the first line of defense and has prepared all week for Gronkowski.
"I know he's a strong, big type of dude," said Allen, who defended Gronkowski in the first game last season. "He's a big target. [I've] just got to stay in front of him and stay aggressive. Strong guy. I remember a couple times he came off the ball and fired off and he kind of, like, hit me and got me off balance, so I have to change up something."
Sudfeld, a rookie whose first stop was New England, is actually an inch taller than Gronkowski. He was undrafted but signed with the Patriots in May and spent time learning from Gronkowski -- hence the nickname. The Jets picked him up off waivers Oct. 4.
Ryan said Sudfeld had another role as well -- providing information to the Jets.
"You obviously pick his brain," Ryan said.
Still, Sudfeld is an unrefined version of his namesake -- or he'd still be on Bill Belichick's roster.
Even if Gronkowski isn't 100 percent, his frame makes matchups tricky.
"You know he's a big target, so you know that's where the ball is going to go in certain situations," Wilson said.
Rex Ryan was so sure that Rob Gronkowski would play against the New York Jets, he had young tight end Zach Sudfeld, dubbed "Baby Gronk" this summer, play the role of the Patriots tight end on the scout team all week.