Steelers man coverage no match for Brady-Gronk connection

AP Photo

The Patriots rode Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to a late 27-24 win over the Steelers yesterday. Despite struggling for a lot of the game against the Steelers' new man-coverage scheme, in crunch time the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski connection was able to overpower the Pittsburgh D and secure the victory.

The Steelers, especially coach Mike Tomlin, had vowed to defeat the Patriots using man coverage since Pittsburgh's loss in last year's AFC Championship Game. After Tom Brady shredded the Steelers in that game for 384 yards and 3 TDs on 76% passing, there was no reason not to try and switch the plan up.

For much of the game, the approach appeared fairly effective. Outside of two touchdown drives to open each half, Brady looked uneasy in the pocket and the Pats offense moved in fits and starts. Instead of "Blitzburgh" zone defenses, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler played aggressive press-man defenses and challenged Brady to out-throw his athletes in cover 1 or 0. The one problem? Rob Gronkowski.

When it mattered most, the Steelers had no answer for the Brady-to-Gronk connection. Until the final drive, Brady hadn't topped 61 passing yards in a series. He threw for 69 to Gronk alone on the game-winning possession (the first time Gronk had ever recorded a perfect 69 on a single drive). The big tight end finished the game with nine catches for a career-high 168 yards and a crucial late-game two-point conversion.

No matter what Pittsburgh did, they had no answer for Gronk. Second-year safety Sean Davis, the primary defender assigned, looked hapless, and Gronk made plenty of catches with two or even three defenders draped over him. Other times, Pittsburgh inexplicably decided to single-cover him or allow him a free release off the line. On that two-point conversion, Gronk embarrassed Davis with an inside step before fading away to snag the reception. It was so bad that Gronk turned and laughed at Davis' attempt to cover him before a celebratory spike.

The Steelers put up a hell of a fight Sunday, and they have to be commended for their take-no-prisoners game planning. But at the end of the day, they couldn't stop Brady-to-Gronk--and unless they can divine a solution ASAP, it's hard to imagine them winning a playoff rematch in Foxborough.

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