The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are set to square off in the AFC Championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium, and the Steelers have one very large reason to be thankful — they won’t have to face Rob Gronkowksi.
In the past two meetings between the teams, Gronkowksi has scored four touchdowns against Pittsburgh’s defense, but, due to a back injury, Gronkowski has been shelved for the remainder of the season on injured reserve.
Good news for the Steelers, right? Well, the Patriots, and their coaching staff, do a tremendous job preparing the team and putting them in a position to succeed. So, what have the Patriots done to help mask the absence of their biggest, and best, offensive target?
I asked Rich Hill, editor of Pats Pulpit (SB Nation’s Patriots site) this very question. See what he had to say:
“The Patriots have changed their offense to be a more three-receiver offense, instead of the two-tight end offense that played at a high level when both Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were available. Rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell emerged as a great contributor (he had the most red zone receptions of any player in the league over the final few weeks of the year), while WR Julian Edelman cranked his performance up a notch (he's put together the two best games of his career in week 17 and the divisional round). The Patriots have also seen RB Dion Lewis return to form after missing most of the season with his knee injury.
I think the Patriots performance against the Ravens highlights the Patriots offensive success after losing Gronk. Five different players recorded 70+ yards on the day, not including Lewis or Mitchell. There are just so many different players capable of carrying the New England offense.”
So the blueprint for the Patriots in recovering from the loss of Gronkowski is to spread the offense, and spread the wealth. Sounds a lot like the Patriots offense before Gronkowski came into the fold.
The next logical question becomes, do the Steelers matchup well with this type of offensive matchup?
Last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, who deploy a similar style offense, the Steelers played a very disciplined, and physical, style of football which was effective; however, even without Gronkowski the Patriots’ offense is markedly better than Kansas City.
It will be up to Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons covering the likes of Julian Edelman in the slot, while also keeping tabs on Martellus Bennett and Dion Lewis. Not to mention Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell being on the look out for deep passes to Brady’s favorite deep targets in Chris Hogan and Malcom Mitchell.
Considering how Gronkowski has torched the Steelers in the past, this is favorable for Keith Butler and company, but it doesn’t mean it will be easy. If the Steelers’ defense can limit the Patriots offense, they will be setting up their offense with the chance to win the game, and punch their ticket to Super Bowl 51.