The Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday road loss to the Oakland Raiders included tight end Jared Cook catching 7 passes for 166 yards. While Cook didn’t have a touchdown reception in his team’s win, the other two Raiders tight ends, Derek Carrier and Lee Smith, did. In total the Raiders tight ends caught 10 passes for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns and with the New England Patriots next on the Steelers schedule, you have to wonder how big of game their tight end Rob Gronkowski will ultimately have Sunday at Heinz Field.
During his Tuesday press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked quite a bit about Gronkowski, who has 39 career receptions for 664 yards and 8 touchdowns against Pittsburgh in the six previous games he has played against them.
“Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] has missed some time this year, but he’s finding his rhythm,” Tomlin said of the Patriots big tight end. “He’s been playing here for the last several weeks, had a big game this past week. You know the match-up issue that he is for everyone globally and he is and has been for us in the past. We are thoughtful of putting together a plan to minimize him and his impact on the game.”
The last time the Steelers played against the Patriots and Gronkowski was Week 15 of last season and they certainly didn’t wind up minimizing him in that contest as he finished with 9 receptions for 168 yards. 3 of those catches went for 69 yards during the Patriots final 5 play, 77 yards touchdown drive. Those three catches also came via three consecutive plays and all were deep throws more than 15 yards past the original line of scrimmage.
To make matters worse, Gronkowski even scored the two-point conversion following the touchdown. It was a very dominant drive for the Patriots tight end and Tomlin let it be known on Wednesday when he talked to the Patriots media that his current defensive players who played in that game certainly remember Gronkowski’s performance last December.
“I think that goes without saying, obviously,” said Tomlin. “Those guys that were a part of that know that, those that weren’t could care less. We better be concerned about preparing ourselves to minimize his impact and do what it is we need to do to be successful against him this time around.”
Tomlin was asked Tuesday if different coverage techniques are needed to help in defending Gronkowski and if there’s anything that needs to be altered because of the way he plays.
“I think when you play a guy like him it’s gonna take multiple people and multiple techniques,” Tomlin said. “So, yes.”
Tomlin was then asked if he’s seen anything work against Gronkowski over the years.
“Yes, but we haven’t been a part of it,” Tomlin said. “We’re looking to be.”
Overall this season the Steelers haven’t done a great job of covering tight ends as you can see in the infographic provided below. In short, opposing tight ends are averaging nearly 6 receptions a game for 66 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers defense so far this season. Gronkowski is likely to exceed those reception and yardage averages Sunday at Heinz Field against the Steelers. By how much and whether or not he scores, however, will likely go a long way in determining the outcome of Sunday’s game and Tomlin sounds like he’s very aware of that.
“He’s a dangerous man. He’s Gronk,” said Tomlin on Wednesday during his conference call with the Patriots media. “He’s a vertical matchup, he’s a big-time playmaker, he’s good with the ball in his hands after the catch, he’s a big-time competitor. It is a serious job to work to minimize his impact on the game.”
Gronkowski, by the way, had a season-high 8 receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown this past Sunday in the Patriots last-second loss to the Miami Dolphins. It marked just the second time this season he hit the century mark in receiving yardage.