Kevin Gorman: Steelers' strategy: Hit Patriots
Sean Davis pleaded the fifth, refusing to reveal the Steelers' strategy against New England Patriots and their All-Pro tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
That sentiment was shared by his fellow Steelers safeties, who promised to speak softly about Sunday's game against the Patriots at Heinz Field but carry a big stick.
“As safeties, you never want people throwing the ball and catching the ball confidently over the middle,” said Davis, the second-year strong safety. “I pride myself on that, especially balls over the middle, making receivers feel it.”
The Patriots (10-3) are the game the Steelers (11-2) have had circled on their schedule all season, one that should determine the top seed and accompanying home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs.
Stopping the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, who has 55 receptions for 849 yards and seven touchdowns this season, is a focal point for the Steelers secondary — especially in the absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier.
“He runs his route where he puts his body between you and the ball,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of Gronkowski, a Woodland Hills graduate. “It's very hard to cover when he does that. They throw it up high, and he'll take it off the top of your head.”
Davis could be a key, given he can cover like a corner and hit like a linebacker. He's never played against Gronkowski, who missed the AFC championship game last January with a back injury, but is well aware of Gronk's playmaking ability.
“He's got size, good catch radius and good hands,” said Davis, who played only three snaps against the Patriots in last year's regular-season meeting. “He goes up and gets the ball. At 6-7, when you high-point the ball, it's hard for defenders to get there. That's pretty much what he brings to the table.”
But Gronkowski also can stretch the field. Tom Brady found him four times for 93 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown and a 37-yarder to set up another score, in the Patriots' 27-16 victory over the Steelers last October at Heinz Field. Brady and Gronk connected five times for 94 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-21 victory over the Steelers in the 2015 season opener in Foxborough.
“That's what makes him one of the best in the league,” said Robert Golden, who started at strong safety against the Patriots last year. “His relationship that he has with his quarterback and the way he's able to get open is a unique thing. It's kind of like Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.
“We're going to have to execute at a high level. The rush and the coverage are going to have to work together. It's going to take the whole defense. We're doing a lot of different things, and it's going to take all 11 guys on the field to not stop Gronk but stop their offense.”
The Steelers know Brady has tortured them, with or without Gronk. Stopping him is important, but the key to beating the Patriots is pressuring Brady, who is 7-2 against the Steelers in the regular season and 10-2 overall, including playoffs.
The Steelers defensive backs marvel at his pinpoint accuracy, mastery of the offense and how rarely Brady makes mistakes, let alone turnovers, in big games.
Davis doesn't need a reminder that Brady connected with Chris Hogan nine times for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including a 34-yard touchdown on a flea- flicker in the second quarter of the Patriots' 36-17 victory in the AFC championship game.
“There were some breakdowns,” Davis said. “(Hogan is) a sneaky little dude. He's a good player. I ain't going to short him. But that was last year, this is this year. We're a new team, new players, whole different mindset.”
The Steelers' mindset is to put the Patriots' past dominance behind them without allowing any of their receivers to get behind their last line of defense.
“It's that time,” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “I'm running out of patience, I'm running out of very nice things to say. They're a good football team.
“We've got to hit them.”
That's the only strategy the Steelers will share: play the Patriots with physicality until they plead for mercy.
With the Patriots, we already know the alternative.