When you think about New England Patriots over the last two decades, a couple things come to mind. Chiefly, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But third should be the always-strong pairing at tight end the team has had, functioning as top weapons in their pass game. While the names and faces have changed, the threat remains the same. Defensively, the Steelers will have to find a way to defend the Patriots’ tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, tomorrow afternoon.
Mike Tomlin spoke to the point in his most recent episode of The Mike Tomlin Show, airing Saturday afternoon.
“That’s probably one of the things that guys like Bill [Belichick] and I share when we’ve been somewhere, particularly for a long period of time,” Tomlin told host Bob Pompeani. “We look at new players and we can relate it to tandems or players that we had in the past. They’ve always had a dynamic tight end tandem, at least the 15 years or so that I’ve been here. The names have changed, Ben Watson and Gronk and Hernandez and others. But there’s always been a cultural emphasis there. Smith and Hunter are just the latest examples of that. We better be prepared to work to minimize them because I’m sure Coach Belichick and company have some intentions to utilize their talents.”
Few fanbases know better the headache Rob Gronkowski was in the league than the Steelers. In seven games against them, Gronkowski averaged 5.9 receptions for for 97.9 yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game, a level of dominance generally unseen by any one tight end. Gronk had a pair of three-touchdown games against Pittsburgh, the Steelers – or the rest of the league, for that matter – ever having a good answer for the 270 pound matchup nightmare. He was the NFL’s Freddy Krueger…if Krueger did a kegstand every weekend in college. But he wasn’t the only top talent. Gronk paired with Aaron Hernandez made for one of the most effective 12 personnel groupings ever, though Hernandez’s murder trial obviously overshadows anything he did on the field.
Fast forward to today and the team has kept its 12 personnel personality in Henry and Smith, two big-money free agency signings. Neither are on the level of past Patriots’ tandems but are still big-time threats against Steelers’ linebackers. They combined for seven of Mac Jones’ 30 targets in the Week One opener with the team just missing a deep shot down the left sideline to Smith. Myles Jack and Devin Bush will be key cogs in trying to defend them and can’t be suckered by playaction that could allow those tight ends to run free behind them.
Whichever team defends the opposing tight end tandem better, Pat Freiermuth/Zach Gentry for Pittsburgh, Hunter Henry/Jonnu Smith for New England, will likely be the victor of this game.