Revamped Texans secondary braced for 'big, strong' Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown against the Texans last season. Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON -- Romeo Crennel has an idea for how his Houston Texans defense can limit Rob Gronkowski.

Unfortunately, it's not one the defensive coordinator can actually employ against the New England Patriots tight end Sunday in the Texans' regular-season opener.

"I could put about 12 or 13 people on the field, but that won't work because they won't allow me to do that," Crennel said with a smile.

But the next best thing? Make sure you "try to disrupt him as best you can."

"You've just got to be sticky in coverage," said Kareem Jackson, who will make his first career start at safety Sunday after spending the first eight seasons of his career at cornerback. "You've got to know where he is at all times. That's a guy we try to have multiple guys around him."

The Texans will need to try something to have a better outcome against the four-time All-Pro tight end than they did when these teams played almost a year ago. In Week 3 against Houston last season, Gronkowski caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in a Patriots victory.

"He's got excellent athletic ability, he can run like a wide receiver, he's got great flexibility [and] he's tough," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said. "Everybody talks about his range, his ability to catch any ball that's thrown to him. He's a really hard guy to match up against. He’s a consistent performer.

"He's probably one of the best tight ends, obviously in the game right now, maybe in the history of the game."

Gronkowski will provide an early test for the Texans' new-look secondary, which struggled last season against tight ends. Houston ranked 26th in the NFL in completion percentage against tight ends (69 percent) and 27th in yards allowed (922) and yards per attempt (7.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The defense was also tied for 27th with nine touchdowns allowed to tight ends.

The Texans' secondary will feature a few new faces after the group's poor performance in 2017. Houston added safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin in free agency, drafted safety Justin Reid in the third round and transitioned Jackson to safety. The unit was 24th in passing yards allowed last season, a year after finishing second in that category.

Even with the improvements, Crennel said the Texans will have a lot of work to do against the "big, strong, physical" Gronkowski.

"It's hard to cover him because he uses all of his skill sets to get open and to catch the ball," Crennel said. "You can try to take him away and you can double him or triple him and try to do that, but they have other people on the team and you can't double everybody.

"So, you have to pick and choose your moments and times and hope that you pick the right ones."