Down 24-19 with only two minutes left in their week 15 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, the New England Patriots unleashed the Gronk: tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted four times on the eventual game-winning drive (a series that spanned just five plays in total), registering three catches for a combined 69 yards. On top of it, he also caught a critical two-point conversion after Dion Lewis’ go-ahead touchdown.
His performance during New England’s 27-24 win last season was just the latest in a string of outstanding games Gronkowski has produced when going against the Steelers. In six meetings with Pittsburgh’s defense, the future Hall of Famer combined to catch 39 passes for 664 yards and eight touchdowns. In short: Gronkowski was near unstoppable every time New England met the Steelers since 2010.
Naturally, the 29-year old will be a priority target for Pittsburgh on Sunday. “It is a serious job to work to minimize his impact on the game,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said about the matchup earlier this week. “He’s a dangerous man. He’s Gronk. He’s a vertical matchup. He’s a big-time play-maker. He’s good with the ball in his hands after the catch. He’s a big-time competitor.”
Last year, the Steelers tried slowing Gronkowski down by using more man-coverage concepts against him. The plan did not work: he finished the game with nine receptions for 168 yards and, as noted above, was indefensible on the game’s final drive. Tomlin knows that he presents a serious challenge for his team again this year, despite not producing at the same level this season as he did in years past.
“Gronk has missed some time this year but he’s finding his rhythm,” the Steelers’ head coach said. “He has been playing the last several weeks. You know the matchup issue he is for everybody globally and he is, and has been, for us in the past. We’ll be thoughtful about putting together a plan to minimize him and his impact on the game. When you play a guy like him it’s going to take multiple people and multiple techniques.”
Gronkowski himself is aware of the fact that the Steelers will be focusing on him tomorrow. “I feel like they’ll throw a lot of things,” he told reporters during a press conference on Thursday. “I mean, I’ve seen a lot from them before — a lot of coverages, a lot of split-safety, post-safety, man, zone. They switch it up a lot, too, and so I’ve had a couple guys before — like a linebacker covered me one time, a safety or a corner.”
“To tell you the truth, they actually mix it up a lot and you’ve got to be prepared for it all, whatever coverage, whatever guy it is,” Gronkowski continued. No matter what the Steelers have thrown at him in the past, he has countered it effectively and provided a reliable target for quarterback Tom Brady — who himself has a history of playing well against the team — in each of his six matchups versus the Pittsburgh defense.
Tomlin, meanwhile, knows that Gronkowski has been a problem his team was unable to solve over the past few seasons. “As far as stopping him, it’s not as easy as A-B-C,” he said. “We haven’t been a part of it. We’re looking to be.”