8:00 AM ET
- Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer Close
- ESPN staff writer
- Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
- University of Florida graduate
Steelers coaches and players have called Gronkowski everything from "freak" to "dangerous man" this week as they prepare for the tight end who's tortured their defense for years.
Coach Mike Tomlin has seen effective coverages against Gronkowski in the past.
"But we haven’t been a part of it," said Tomlin in preparation for Sunday's clash with New England (9-4). "We’re looking to be."
The numbers validate Tomlin's point. In Gronkowski's past five games against Pittsburgh, he has 34 catches for 592 yards and five touchdowns. That's more yardage than all but eight NFL tight ends produced in the entire 2017 regular season.
The Steelers (7-5-1) have tried a bit of everything on Gronkowski, who last season was kept relatively in check before exploding for 69 yards on the final drive of the Patriots' 27-24 victory. Oh yeah, he also caught a two-point conversion after that drive.
Safety Sean Davis was covering Gronkowski for most of that game, and the performance still bothers him, though he's resigned to the fate that Gronkowski makes ridiculous catches through tight coverage.
Davis has moved from strong to free safety, so he won't match up with Gronkowski on Sunday. But he's got a promise on which to deliver.
"I’m just going to make sure those deep shots Gronk got on us last year, on me last year, you’re not going to get it this year," Davis said.
Questions persist about whether Gronkowski's game is deteriorating due to mounting injuries over nine seasons. From 2010 to 2017, Gronkowski produced at least eight touchdowns in every season with 10 or more games played. This season, he has three touchdowns in 10 games, along with a modest 637 yards on 43 receptions.
But he still garners the same respect in the Steelers locker room. Defenders say his massive 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame makes contesting catches difficult for defensive backs, and Gronkowski is athletic enough to get past linebackers.
"Make sure we put a couple of bodies on him, make sure the safeties know where he is at all times," cornerback Joe Haden said. "One-on-one [coverage] — that’s what they want."
The Patriots move Gronkowski around enough that everyone must be ready. Slot corner Cam Sutton doesn't expect just one player to shadow Gronkowski. "Everybody in the secondary" can get lined up with him on a given down, he said.
Mixing coverages can help, because as defensive coordinator Keith Butler points out, quarterback Tom Brady "will hurt you" if you stay in the same look all game. Brady has 23 touchdowns and one interception in his past eight games against Pittsburgh, with seven wins.
The Steelers' defense is not exactly brimming with confidence entering this crucial matchup. The unit hasn't picked off a pass since Week 10, and during this three-game losing streak, Pittsburgh has given up five drives of 60-plus yards in the fourth quarter.
But linebacker T.J. Watt likes his defense against any NFL team — as long as the Steelers do a few things.
"Just going out and getting some damn turnovers — make some splash plays and do our job and not try to do too much and we’ll be just fine," Watt said. "We’re getting so close. We have a lot of tipped passes, dropped interceptions. I think we know we’re so close, and one of these games, it’s going to all come together for us."