By Matthew Marczi
Pretty much every armchair defensive coordinator watching the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the New England Patriots this past Sunday was probably scratching his head watching the Steelers and their attempts to defend All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
For much of the game, it was small defensive backs like William Gay and Shamarko Thomas drawing the assignment, but more highly criticized was the endless series of soft releases off the line. It is indisputable that the Patriots exploited the matchups and schemes that the Steelers used to defend the tight end throughout the night.
They took the matchup seemingly every time it was presented to them. In fact, it was Tom Brady’s first pass of the night: an 11-yard gain in front of Gay’s free release and soft cushion. Later in that drive, Gronkowski took advantage of some defensive confusion to gain separation on third and long.
Troy Polamalu began the play fairly tight on the tight end, but about 10 yards out, he turned around and looked back in the pocket, which freed Gronkowski to receive Brady’s pass before Ryan Clark could relieve Polamalu on the coverage. I’m not sure which safety is more responsible on this play, but neither look good.
In the second quarter, the Steelers decided it would be a good idea to put their shortest player on the field against the tall and muscular tight end. Once again, with the free release and soft cushion off the line, Brady and Gronkowski continued to play pitch and catch, taking what they’re given for easy chunks of yardage and first downs.
This time it was good for a 13-yard gain. However, they continued to go back to this matchup periodically throughout the game. The results were usually similar, as on this third down and eight situation in the fourth quarter.
Although Thomas this time was able to hit Gronkowski before the first down, the sheer size mismatch led to an embarrassing scene in which the rather large tight end dragged the minute defensive back about three yards to finish off the conversion. To his credit, though, Thomas was eventually able to drag him down on his own with a leg tackle.
The question on the tip of everybody’s tongue during the game—and since then—was this: why isn’t Cortez Allen covering Gronkowski? Didn’t he contain him the last time these two teams played?
Frankly, the question is legitimate. Allen does seem to be the most logical matchup. Even though there is plenty of logic in Dick LeBeau’s words prior to the game that it was important to throw them different looks because the Patriots would be well-prepared for the matchup due to its past success, I counted exactly three passing plays with Allen covering Gronkowski. That just does not seem to make sense to me.
Of course, that doesn’t ensure success, either, as the following play shows. But this is a play you can live with. Although he didn’t jam at the line, he played tight off the snap and stayed close. In fact, the only reason this play was successful was because Gay was led on a crossing route over the middle of the field, which forced Allen to hold up. One could easily make the argument that Allen makes a play, or prevents there from even being a throwing window, if he wasn’t held up.
Given the worrying success that the Patriots had against off-coverage against small defensive backs with free releases, I would like to believe that the next time these two teams meet, the Steelers will have a more aggressive strategy to attack Rob Gronkowski.