Tim Benz: How Steelers should prepare for post-Gronkowski Patriots
It’s … what?
What word would you use?
Ironic? Typical? Funny? Unfortunate?
No. Not unfortunate. No matter how you slice it, be glad that the Steelers don’t have to deal with Rob Gronkowski anymore.
Even if they are probably better suited to do so right now than they have ever been.
But it does have to make you chuckle, right?
The Steelers have assembled a defense that features a reasonable replica of Ryan Shazier in Devin Bush. A linebacker with a safety background in Mark Barron. An athletic strong safety in Terrell Edmunds, who is combining raw talent with a year of seasoning. And a nickel safety in Kameron Kelly, who has the size, length and speed that could’ve, at least theoretically, matched up with the New England Patriots monster tight end.
It’s almost enough to make you wish Gronkowski hadn’t retired, right?
“Thank God he’s not there,” Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said Monday.
OK, never mind. Forget I asked.
Heyward is right. There will be other good tight ends on the schedule the Steelers can challenge with this new defensive look. Better to just keep ol’ No. 87 in mothballs.
Given the way Gronkowski haunted the Steelers over his career, I’m not ruling out a return before Sunday night’s kickoff. I can just see the “Gronk Party Bus” making a hard turn into Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski then rolls into the players’ tunnel in full gear and walks away with 100 yards and two touchdowns.
After all, he had 41 catches for 685 yards and eight touchdowns against the Steelers in seven career matchups.
Last year, as the future Hall of Famer’s body was giving way in December, he had his least productive game by far against the Black and Gold. He had just two catches for 21 yards as the Steelers went on to win 17-10.
Don’t expect mourning on the South Side about his departure.
“Gronk is a heck of a player,” Heyward said. “He’s got Super Bowls. He’s one of the best tight ends ever. I don’t know how you replace that.”
The answer is: You don’t.
Last year’s seventh-round draft choice, Ryan Izzo, might be the Patriots’ best option. Matt LaCosse is battling an ankle injury. Ben Watson and Lance Kendricks are starting the year on the suspended list.
Furthermore, receiver Julian Edelman is playing with a banged-up thumb. Fellow wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon are just getting worked into the Patriots’ system. Rookies Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers are, too.
New England quarterback Tom Brady would probably like to have Gronkowski as a default target now more than ever, even in a diminished physical state. He acknowledges there is a long way to go when it comes to figuring out the nuances of his pass-catchers.
“It’s one thing to predict how it is going to go, it’s another thing to actually go out there and do it.” Brady said on WEEI this week.
“We’re not a finished product,” Brady added. “We won’t be that way for a long time. But we are going to try to build every single day.”
But when I asked about Gronkowski’s absence affecting that offense, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wouldn’t bite. Instead, he deferred to Brady’s abilities independent of who may be catching his throws.
“He is thoughtful about how he attacks you,” Tomlin said. “He is going to hit you with known weapons. He is going to hit you with lesser-known weapons. You better focus your energy on him and work out from there. Gronk was an awesome contributor. But I am sure they are poised to redistribute the ball to other people.”
With Gronkowski gone, the Patriots also could use the running backs more often — both in the passing game and in the running game.
As if they don’t use them a lot already.
James White had the second-most receiving yards among running backs in the NFL during 2018 (751) and the third-most catches (87).
As a team, New England averaged 31.2 rush attempts per game last season, third-most in the NFL.
Yet, in Pittsburgh last year, the Patriots never held a lead. Thus, they ran only 19 times. That tied for their season low in attempts even though the club averaged 5.1 yards per carry that day.
“I totally agree,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said of the idea of the Patriots looking to run more. “But they still have Tom Brady at quarterback. So I expect them to be themselves.”
Part of what has made the Patriots so lethal over the last 20 years is that they always keep you guessing. Normally, that’s by design.
Now it might be out of necessity as they figure out what kind of offense they want to be.
But there’s no need to guess what the Steelers would prefer.
They’ll take the uncertainty of approach from New England as opposed to the certainty of danger that Gronkowski used to represent.