While the Pittsburgh Steelers facing the New England Patriots has become commonplace—they typically are both the winners of their respective divisions, and thus face each other guaranteed every year they both do so—both sides will have at least one major deviation on offense.
The Steelers won’t have Antonio Brown. That will be a big deal. But the Patriots also won’t have Rob Gronkowski. Both of these players, members of the 2010 NFL Draft, are surefire Hall of Famers, and there is no replacing what they brought to the field. Both sides feel they’ve adequately compensated for these losses, but their absence will still shape the game.
The Steelers’ defense in particular is excited about not having to worry about Gronkowski for a change. They have faced him something like eight times over the course of the past nine years, and he has, outside of the game last season, pretty much always dominated them in some form or fashion. He virtually single-handedly carried out the game-winning drive against them in 2017.
Said Joe Haden, who caught an interception last season from Tom Brady while under pressure and looking for Gronkowski, “it helps us a little not having to worry about Gronk, because he’s a guy that we definitely paid a lot of attention to. We’ll just kind of ease into it. I know Coach T’s gonna have a plan to execute, so we’ll figure it out”.
The Patriots have looked to add bodies at the tight end position, but not overly successfully, and they even have a couple of them on the shelf for the season opener against the Steelers. Still, they have plenty of running backs and wide receivers with which to exploit mismatches, something of which head coach Mike Tomlin has not lost sight.
When seeking comment during his pre-game press conference on Tuesday about how Gronkowski’s retirement might make it easier to play New England’s offense, Tomlin deferred to Tom Brady. “I think that he’s the type of player that he’s thoughtful about how he attacks you from time to time”, he said.
“He’s gonna hit you with known weapons, he’s gonna hit you with lesser-known weapons. You better focus your energies on him and work out from there”, Tomlin went on. “I know that’s always been our approach. I know that Gronk was an awesome contributor. But I’m sure that they’re poised to redistribute the ball to other people”.
I know this much, though. Steelers fans are not going to miss seeing Gronkowski dominated Steelers defenders in one-on-one matchups year after year. He always seemed to manage to play an integral role in handing Pittsburgh a critical loss. He was fun to watch when he wasn’t playing the Steelers—hell, he would have made a great Steeler—but I’ll take him watching the game from his couch all day, every day.