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Patriots' TEs pose matchup problems

The conundrum that some defensive coaches face from week to week Joe Whitt sees on a daily basis.

Whitt coaches Green Bay's defensive backs, and he can attest to the matchup problems caused by Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who is big, fast and athletic.

"A corner's not big enough, (and) he'll outrun a linebacker," Whitt said, "so you try and put a safety type on him, and most safeties aren't athletic enough to match up on him."

Now consider that the New England Patriots have two emerging stars at tight end -- Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- and you get an idea of what the Steelers are up against Sunday at Heinz Field.

Gronkowski and Hernandez may test the Steelers' top-ranked pass defense as much as wideout Wes Welker.

Gronkowski and Hernandez have combined for almost 700 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season. They are second and third, respectively, on the Patriots in receptions.

The Steelers haven't forgotten that the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski caught all three touchdown passes Tom Brady threw against them last November. The 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez isn't as big, but he can be just as hard to defend because the former Florida star has the speed of a wideout.

Double trouble
The New England Patriots struck gold in taking tight ends in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 draft. Here is how those tight ends have fared:
Year: G Rec. Yds. Avg. Long TD
Rob Gronkowski (second-round pick)
2011: 6 29 401 13.8 30 5
2010: 16 42 546 13.0 28 10
Aaron Hernandez (fourth-round pick)
2011: 4 27 289 10.7 30 3
2010: 14 45 563 12.5 46 6

The Patriots often play their second-year tight ends at the same time, but that does not make what they are doing unique.

"It is how effective they are at doing it and how they utilize those guys and how they are capable of getting them down the field," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's a special relationship they are forming there with their signal-caller."

Gronkowski's relationship with Hernandez is not unlike the one second-year wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown have had since joining the Steelers.

"We definitely do compete with each other but in a great way and in a good sense," said Gronkowski, a Woodland Hills graduate. "We are always both trying to get better on our routes and our blocking, but we try to help each other out at the same time."

Gronkowski and Hernandez pushing each other has resulted in stress for defenses that try to slow New England's top-ranked passing game.

"They both provide challenges in totally different ways," Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "Hernandez is obviously more of a receiver, and Gronkowski is big, he's got great hands, and you throw the ball anywhere near him and he's able to pull it down."

Having two tight ends like that allows New England the flexibility of lining up in a run formation or spreading the field and disguising what it wants to do.

"You can have all those looks off that same personnel group because of their skill ability," Whitt said. "Are you going to put your nickel (defense) out there• Or are you going to put an extra defensive lineman out there• It makes it hard for the defensive playcaller to decide what he's going to do because of their versatility."

It isn't any easier for defenses after the ball is snapped.

"You are taking defenders that are sometimes not used to being flexed out and trying to cover a guy in space," said Arizona Cardinals coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who played tight end for nine seasons in the NFL. "A large part of this game has become getting those matchups and having your players win the one-on-one matchups in situations."

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