Patriots Exploited Coverage Mismatches With Rob Gronkowski

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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    Cortez should have been shadowing Gronk whenever he was on the field. I don’t care about throwing them different looks, that’s what Polamalu, Jarvis Jones and others are for. A lot of this game is about one on one matchups and Allen is the best guy suited to matchup and neutralize Gronk…… just dumbfounding

  • He should have had one assignment all game, even when Gronk is on the sideline you better be right next to him.

  • SumnerYoung

    Exploitation in its purest football form. This is what good teams do to bad teams. The Steelers need a weapon for Big Ben similar to Gronk. A big play WR or TE.

  • dgh57


    You play Gronk the same way you played him/them last time until they prove otherwise! Between Brady throwing the ball when we were in our base defenses, our DBs sometimes playing out of position, us not jamming the receivers, big time mismatches, and a inability to stop the run, it’s no wonder we lost and gave up 55 points and 610 total yards!!

    Bottom line: we were out played and worse out coached!

  • Buccos9

    I agree completely. Lebeau’s approach seems to be to stop doing what works and do something else because it will surprise the other team. It may have surprised them, but it would have been a pleasant surprise. I agree the school of thought that says “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”.

  • Ken

    agreed. how could you not make sure he was the primary focus… stupid…. then again we didn’t cover anybody.

  • steeltown

    Yea its almost like Lebeau was trying to get in a coaching duel with Belichik and McDaniels..and as Bryan mentioned “throw them different looks” but that’s not the way to go regarding pass coverage, especially against the Patriots. Its mostly about matchups, let the players play and to their strengths and let the best man win.

  • Lucus Rodriguez

    I was screaming at the television to put cortez on gronk and almost got kicked out the bar I was at. Pissed me off.

  • cencalsteeler

    Sounds like LeBeau outwitted himself.

  • charles

    I was surprised when it appeared that Shamarko did not seem to have the speed to keep up with Gronkowski. This is why he was never in a position to make a play on the ball. Didn’t the Jets stymie these two: Brady and Gronk?

  • SumnerYoung

    Tight ends are big time weapons in the NFL now more so than ever. I know hindsight is 20/20, but I found myself looking at the 2011 NFL draft. The Steelers picked CB Curtis Brown at #95, and not long after at pick # 102, the Browns selected TE Jordan Cameron. At #128 the Steelers picked CB Cortez Allen, and right after at #129 the Broncos picked TE Julius Thomas. Those two tight ends are very good NFL players already. And to further the Curtis Brown pain, CB Richard Sherman was picked at #154!! Gets some receiving weapons for Big Ben!!

  • walter mason

    I seem to recall we were desperate for a starting CB… thus the C Brown pic instead of best available athlete.