How the Steelers (finally) wrangled Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady
PITTSBURGH — The Steelers finally slowed down Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots’ offense on Sunday in their 17-10 win.
Their magic scheme that finally solved the Patriots’ riddle? The Steelers channeled their inner Olivia Newton-John, getting physical all day with the Patriots’ receivers.
“I thought our DBs were very violent. Their hands were active,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “There weren’t a lot of just open routes besides the one early on. I just love our contact with our DBs. We were aggressive.”
The Steelers dealt the Patriots a crushing loss, and finally wrangled Brady and Gronkowski, who have been giving Steelers fans nightmares throughout their careers.
Brady ended up throwing for 279 yards, though his stats were padded a bit by a last-minute drive that ended in the red zone. But Gronkowski was quiet all day, catching just 2 of 5 passes for 21 yards. Gronk didn’t have his first catch until 12:40 remained in the fourth quarter, and he couldn’t come down with two passes near the end zone in the final seconds.
In six previous games against the Steelers, Gronkowski never had fewer than four catches or 72 yards.
But on Sunday, Gronkowski said the Steelers were mixing up their coverages on him, and paid him plenty of attention.
“I mean, they were doing double teams, zone defense. They did a good job,” Gronkowski said quietly at his locker. “Just wasn’t a good day overall. We fought, we just didn’t make enough plays. Just got to give them credit.”
Too often over the years, the Steelers have let Gronkowski streak free down the middle for huge gains. They were determined not to let that happen again.
“We mixed a variety of people on him and concepts on him, but he had his moments,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “There was a possession down in the red zone that he converted, and I think we had two people assigned to him. He’s a special guy.”
But in addition to double-teaming Gronkowski and mixing up their coverage, the Steelers noticed that Gronk stayed in to block on a lot of passing plays, which has been frequent for him this season.
“A lot of time Gronk chips out and he gets out late, [but] he was staying in a good amount and blocking,” Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. “He’s a really good overall player, we just had him on lock today.”
The Steelers didn’t seem to attack the Patriots’ offense with any exotic looks. They just got up on the Patriots’ receivers, made them fight for the ball, and didn’t allow yards after the catch.
“Just being sound,” said Heyward, who had four tackles and two quarterback hits. “They got the running game going, but there weren’t a lot of extra yards after the play. Everything was competing, and that’s all you want.”
The Steelers have been running a similar defense for years, and had a few new wrinkles for Brady on Sunday. But nothing that really seemed to throw the quarterback off his game.
Brady had a lot of time in the pocket to find his receivers. The Steelers didn’t blitz much, they hit Brady seven times on 37 pass plays, and only sacked him once.
“Had a few different [wrinkles], but that’s kind of been every team this year, has a few different things,” Brady said. “I think we have to come to expect and still go out there and do our jobs.”
The Steelers uncharacteristically flustered Brady midway through the fourth quarter, when the Patriots still had a golden chance to tighten the score or even take the lead. Brady threw a back-breaking interception to Joe Haden inside the red zone with 7:51 remaining.
Brady said he was trying to get the ball out of bounds, but he was hit by Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
It was just Brady’s fourth interception in 11 career games against the Steelers, and his first red zone interception since 2016.
“I was just trying to flick it out of bounds,” Brady said. “Didn’t want to take a sack. Shouldn’t happen.”
The ball floated in the air seemingly forever, and Haden came down with the ball and tapped his toes in-bounds despite being tackled by Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
“I was waiting for it for awhile,” Haden said with a smile. “We’ve been trying to get after it. We’ve been dropping ones that have been hitting us in the face.”
Gronkowski wasn’t the only Patriots’ receiver frustrated by the Steelers. Josh Gordon only had one catch for 19 yards on two targets, and surprisingly came off the field for Cordarrelle Patterson on the final fourth-and-15 play that fell incomplete.
Edelman had seven catches for 90 yards, but 34 came on the final drive, and his day was dampened by two bad drops earlier in the game. James White only had five catches for 25 yards. Chris Hogan got wide open for a 63-yard touchdown on the opening drive, then just had one catch for 5 yards the rest of the way.
“They did a good job,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We moved the ball, just had too many penalties and we got stopped in the red area.”
The Steelers’ defense, which entered the game ranked No. 7 in points allowed, made the Patriots earn every inch. The days of letting the Patriots run up and down the field on them are over.
“We always have new wrinkles every week, but we’ve played them every year for a couple of years now,” Heyward said. “It just gets down to execution, and we stressed that at the beginning of the week.”