There's no way around it. The Patriots are simply a different team when Rob Gronkowski takes the field. It's that simple.
After two weeks of Gronk knocking the rust off, the Patriots fully unleashed their beast of a tight end against the Steelers. The results could be seen in the final score (55-31), the stat sheet (9 catches, 143 yards and a touchdown) or by the naked eye. Gronk and the Patriots offense simply overwhelmed Pittsburgh throughout the contest.
It all started on the second New England possession of the game. After going three-and-out their first possession, Tom Brady immediately went to Gronk, grabbing an easy 11 yards on an out pattern. However, a 15 yard clipping penalty on Logan Mankins backed the Pats up on their very next play, leading to a 3rd-and-14 that would have been a automatic drive killer earlier in the season.
Remember when the Patriots went 7-39 on third downs over a three week span? 3rd-and-14 is no biggie when a healthy Gronk is on your side. Brady went back to his top weapon and hit a 34 yarder down the seam, converting a tough third down. Then, on the very next play, Brady hit Gronk again, this time for 27.
"Uh oh", said the rest of the NFL. "Gronk is back."
By halftime, Gronk had already tallied 7 catches, 119 yards and a touchdown, spurring the Patriots to a 24-10 lead. However, the big tight end's contribution to the team went far before his statistics. Gronk devoured the one-on-one matchups he got early, forcing the Steelers to adjust and devote multiple defenders to him. This created favorable matchups for everyone else on the field to exploit, with Aaron Dobson (5 catches, 130 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Danny Amendola (4 catches, 122 yards, 1 touchdown) becoming the main beneficiaries.
Tom Brady acknowledged the impact Gronkowski had on the offense after the game. Via ESPN Boston:
"He's one of the best players in the NFL. We really haven't
had him for a long time and we've learned to play without him, but it's
obvious when he's in there [that] he adds a different element to what
we're trying to do and that's why he's such a good player."
"He worked really hard to get back to this point and after he's got a
few games under him and he's got his football legs back, hopefully he
can continue to do it. It was a big spark for us
yesterday and he really came out making some big plays for us on third
down, some drive starters when we got things going into the drive."
"He's a tough matchup because of his quickness, his strength and his
size, he's tough to cover. And when the extra coverage goes
to him, that means there's less coverage on the other guys."
Gronkowski's physical dominance also brings the Patriots major schematic benefits. Gronk's dynamic ability as a pass catcher enables the Patriots to be effective both throwing and running out of multiple tight end formations. Without him earlier in the season, the Patriots lack of a receiving threat at tight end (sorry, Michael Hoomanawanui) lead them to largely ditch the two tight end packages that were a staple of the offense last year, opting for heavy usage of three wide receiver groups instead.
Sunday, the Patriots utilized two tight end packages on 36 (of 75 snaps), with third tight end Matthew Mulligan even getting 21 snaps in. The tight end heavy-packages presented the Steelers with a dillemna: staying in heavier, base personel would likely leave coverage mismatches, but going nickel would leave them vulnerable to a powerful, downhill running game. No matter what they did, there would be a weakness for Tom Brady to diagnose and exploit.
For example, Brady's 27 yarder to Gronk and 81 yard touchdown both came out of 3 tight end personnel, with the Steelers geared up to stop the run.
That ability to dictate matchups also greatly benefited the running game. Stevan Ridley (26 carries, 115 yards, 2 touchdowns) was the workhorse, but LeGarrette Blount (5 carries, 47 yards, 1 TD) and Brandon Bolden (3 carries, 36 yards) also found creases in the nickel looks they faced. The successful running game, in turn, fueled a play action attack that went 8-12 for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns.
This ability to keep constantly keep opposing defenses off-balance and create mismatches was central to the Patriots offensive success in the past three seasons. Those mismatches simply weren't there in the beginning of the season, leading to the ugliest football of Tom Brady's career.
They're back now, and there's a certain fiesta to thank for it.