By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
You may have heard that the Patriots and Steelers have a pretty important football game on Sunday. The million-dollar question for the game is all about the big tight end who wears No. 87 for New England.
Rob Gronkowski torched the Steelers in last season's epic win for the Patriots, catching nine of his 13 targets for 168 yards and adding a late two-point conversion in the 27-24 win. He proved against the Dolphins last Sunday that he's still capable of producing like a top-flight pass-catcher, even if he's not quite the same old Gronk that we're used to seeing.
But man, that 2017 game. It was a continuation of Gronkowski's historical dominance against Mike Tomlin's Steelers. He's caught eight touchdowns in six games, has never made under four catches, and has never gained under 72 yards.
But the question is, will Gronkowski be able to produce the same way he did last year (and last week) this time around?
Better yet, will Tomlin make sure his guys don't let No. 87 take over again?
"I think that goes without saying, obviously," Tomlin said during a conference call with New England media on Tuesday. "Those that were a part of us understand that. Those that weren’t care less. We better be concerned about preparing ourselves to minimize his impact and do what it is that we need to do to be successful this time around."
The Dolphins apparently didn't realize that you still can't play soft zones against Gronkowski and Tom Brady. Gronk beat Miami by recognizing open areas and executing impeccably. He beat the Steelers last season in a different way, because they played a different defense, mostly with safety Sean Davis in man coverage.
Let's go through each of Gronkowski's 13 targets (plus one that resulted in a penalty) and the two-point conversion to get an idea of exactly how the Steelers attempted to defend Gronkowski, and how he beat them.
1. Gronkowski motions left across the formation and Davis follows him. Brady gets rid of the ball quickly for a two-yard completion and Davis angles him out of bounds.
2. Davis lines up about 10 yards off Gronkowski with Steelers playing zone. Gronkowski builds steam and gets just enough separation on Davis to make a 31-yard catch over the middle.
Also the Steelers played this snap with 10 players?
3. Davis gives Gronkowski a cushion off the line, but stays tight in coverage with less field to defend in the red zone. Davis looks to hook Gronkowski's arm, but no flags. Pass falls incomplete.
4. Davis again doesn't jam Gronkowski at the line, but stays with him down the field. No luck, though, as Brady drops a dime into Gronkowski's hands as he makes a spectacular catch look easy. One of those "no defense for that" kind of plays.
5. Split out wide against cornerback Artie Burns, Gronkowski beats him off the line and gets inside positioning with his outside shoulder. Brady gets enough time to rip off a quick slant to Gronkowski for 10 yards.
6. Gronkowski is finally jammed at the line, but by defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Gronkowski still gets a good release off the line and he's left one-on-one against safety Mike Mitchell. Gronkowski gets enough separation to get open as he heads for the right pylon, but can't make the catch as Brady delivers it right into his hands. Mitchell deserves credit for disrupting the pass, but Gronkowski should've had a touchdown on that one.
7. Again, no jam at the line from Davis. Gronkowski gets separation over the middle, and it's an easy pitch-and-catch for Brady and the tight end.
8. Gronkowski gets jammed this time, but still gets open against Davis with an in-cut and Brady sees it. He doesn't see linebacker Vince Williams, though, who tips the ball into his own hands for the interception.
9. Gronkowski beats Davis off the line again and gets open over the middle again. Seventeen yard throw-and-catch, again.
10. Gronkowski splits out wide against Burns. The cornerback tries to jam him but gets overpowered, then gets flagged for pass interference after tugging at Gronkowski's jersey during the pass attempt. Not an egregious penalty by Burns, but it certainly could've been a big catch for Gronkowski if he wasn't touched.
11. Gronkowski breaks off early contact from Davis and gets open yet again. But this time, Cameron Heyward gets a hand on the ball at the line of scrimmage and it's tipped incomplete.
12. Gronkowski blows right through attempted jam by Davis about five yards up the field. He builds momentum and gets plenty open down the middle, and Brady steps up in the pocket to deliver perhaps his best throw of the game on a huge 26-yard grab by Gronk.
13. Steelers playing Nickel, with Mitchell appearing to man up on Gronkowski. But instead the safety tries to blitz, and it backfires as he can't get around left tackle Nate Solder in time to get to Brady. Also that left Gronkowski wide open over the middle, and the deep safeties can't close in time. Another 26-yard catch.
14. Davis again gives Gronkowski a free release off the line, but tries to chip him. It doesn't work, as Gronkowski shakes him off and breaks free for Brady to throw him an easy one. It's anything but easy, as the throw nearly hits the turf, but Gronkowski makes an incredible adjustment to the ball to snag it before it can fall incomplete. Seventeen more yards to complete an utterly dominant three-play series for Gronkowski on the eventual game-winning drive.
Two-point conversion: Gronkowski basically jukes Davis out of his cleats and bursts behind him just enough to catch the quick fade from Brady. Followed up with one of Gronk's funniest celebrations.
Conclusion: The Steelers can't just do the exact same thing again. They are going to have to be more physical than they were against Gronkowski in last season's game. Tomlin and the Steelers have almost never jammed Gronkowski right at the line, even when playing man-to-man. So it's fair to wonder if they'll bother this time. But Davis leads the Steelers in defensive snaps this year (852, 98.3 percent), so it's quite possible they roll the same one-on-one matchup right out there.
But at the same time, it remains to be seen whether Gronkowski can get the same kind of separation he got a year ago. He probably will if the Steelers are crazy enough to leave him out wide against cornerbacks again. But while Gronk did produce great numbers against the Dolphins, it was more about shredding their zones than exerting physical dominance or running away from people.
If the Steelers play more zone, forget about it. But if they man up with Davis again, it could make Sunday's matchup a bit tighter than a year ago. At least Tomlin is aware that he can't just let Gronkowski take over yet again, because the results on the field haven't reflected that.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].