Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski will be the focus of not only the Pats this Thursday but the Steelers as well. Pittsburgh has already stated that they plan on jamming the big man in an attempt to disrupt the timing of the Patriots offense.
It is a sound plan because however Gronk goes thus does the Patriots offense. It is no secret that without Gronkowski at the end of the playoffs in the 2011 Super Bowl and the 2012-13 Conference Championship games, the Patriots offense was a shell of itself without the big man. And a look at the playoffs in 2014 with a healthy Gronk shows how potent this attack can be.
But there is a vast difference between facing a New England offense without Gronkowski and trying to take him away. Above I said the plan was sound because everything in the Patriots offense is based on timing, so if you can throw the timing of the routes off, it messes with Tom Brady’s rhythm and can impact the offensive production.
The Steelers are in a transition defensively; gone is Dick LeBeau and the master of those zone blitzes that the Steelers thrived on for so many years. Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor are all gone from the defense as well. They’re trying to change to a faster, more athletic defense under new coordinator Keith Butler who was the Pittsburgh linebackers coach.
The Steelers were 27th against the pass in 2014, an anomaly for them so something had to be done. Now Butler is rebuilding on the fly with a new system, new players but the same hard-nosed attitude. Not surprisingly, they struggled badly in the preseason. They’ll eventually get it figured out, so for the Patriots, although facing somewhat of an unknown defense in Week 1, it may be better seeing them now rather than in December.
Much of how the Patriots react to the strategy of jamming Gronkowski will depend upon who the Steelers use to jam and how they’ll play the big man.
One tactic that worked to perfection in the Super Bowl was to split Gronkowski out wide, if the defense puts one its linebackers out there, it opens up mismatches elsewhere and if Gronkowski can beat the jam at the line, not many linebackers can run with him.
Look for Brady to put Gronkowski in motion, he’ll drag a defender a defender across the field with him and will be harder to slow down when he’s already moving. If Pittsburgh chooses to double team Gronk it will open up a big piece of real estate for fellow tight end Scott Chandler. Chandler was added this off-season during free agency and he, Gronk and Brady worked a lot during the spring and summer on red zone offensive plays. At 6’7, 270 Chandler is even bigger than Gronkowski and is adept at attacking the seams and finding ways to get the ball with a huge catch radius.
During his Monday morning press conference, Bill Belichick spoke about having the Twin Towers (Gronk/Chandler), and how teams may attempt to slow them down.
“Each team will probably have its own way or game plan or whatever of how to deal with whatever personnel we have out there,” Belichick said. “There are different combinations of people that we can have, so it’s hard to talk about just one or two players, who are the other three guys, and how are they aligned formationally. I don’t know.”
“We’ll try to create situations that stress the defense, and if they overplay one thing and underplay something else, then hopefully we’ll be going to that softer point. That’s pretty much what we’re trying to do anyways. Whoever the players are out there, that’s kind of the basic philosophy.”
Covering Gronkowski and Chandler will probably fall to the safeties, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen. They’ll have their hands full with those two and it will be a key area to watch. If Pittsburgh is placing multiple players on Gronkowski to slow him down, it should open up some real estate for Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson. Dobson had the best game of his career against Pittsburgh back in 2013. It was also a game where Gronkowski caught 9 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Belichick spoke about how the Steelers defense, is multiple and they change fronts and coverages. One thing that is a philosophical difference from years past is that this season’s Pittsburgh team will play more Cover-2/Tampa-2 than their predecessors.
Where they gave up a lot of big passing plays, the Cover-2 is designed to take that the deep ball away. The variant, the Tampa-2 is like the Cover-2 but splits the deep part of the field in thirds and adds a MLB into the mix to take away the deep ball.
Brady has had plenty of success thru the years against the Cover-2 because the New England offense isn’t a deep passing attack. They have the short-medium passing game that takes advantage of the seams and underneath routes of the defense.
There will be plenty of sub-plots on Thursday night, the last time these two teams met in Foxboro in November 2013; they rolled up over 1130 yards of offense. But one of the key areas and players to watch will be Gronkowski. They’ll be jamming….but do it at your own risk.
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