Film Room: Gronkowski Dominates The Steelers (Again)

Listen to the opening beat of Bell Div Davoe’s hit song That Girl Is Poison and you instantly know what you’re about to jam too. You know the one, right? da da dada da dadadada baa! I heard it Saturday and during Sunday’s loss to New England, it played through my head again. Rob Gronkowski was poison for the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ secondary.

Yet again.

Like I wrote in Stats Of The Weird, Gronkowski is averaging six catches, well over 100 yards, and a touchdown a game in six meetings with the Steelers. Sunday, he set a career high in yards and tied a high in catches while dominating on the go-ahead Patriots’ touchdown drive.

As usual, Keith Butler and company had no answer to even slow him down or give the illusion that they were. We don’t have the All-22 left but we’re going to break down some of those big plays and what the Steelers *tried* to do to stop him.

Let’s start with a 4th and one slant route Gronkowski caught. Tough assignment for Artie Burns who gets left on him because of the Patriots formation. Gronk iso to the backside where Burns almost always lines up. So the Steelers don’t bother trying to swap assignments and get Burns over someone in the slot.

For Burns, two routes you gotta expect. Fade and slant.

Gronk runs the slant, getting inside leverage off the line. All Burns can do is trail. He actually plays the pocket and contests the throw well but when you’re dealing with a 260 pound TE, you’re not the stronger man in the battle. Gronk hangs on and converts.

Now to the final drive. Last play before the two minute warning. Patriots in an empty set. We haven’t begun to get into charting but a lot of mixing and matching here. Looks like New England is in 11 personnel and Pittsburgh responds with a 3-2-6 dime defense. All three DL are in the game, one OLB (Dupree) and one ILB (Fort). William Gay the dime defender, lined up as if he’s the SS with Sean Davis over Gronk in the slot.

Appears to be a Cover 1 Robber. Man-free coverage with Gay being the robber, reading the QBs eyes and Mike Mitchell the single high safety. Gronk runs a good route, stemming to the outside in order to get Davis to bite and then uses a swim move to beat him in coverage.

The pass rush doesn’t get there, Brady does a nice job of climbing the pocket, and hits Gronk over the middle. Mitchell, sinking on everything vertical, isn’t able to close in time.

The next play. Single high again with Mitchell shading to the defense’s left, away from Gronk, who is again lined up in the slot. Nickel blitz with Mike Hilton, who rolled up on Gronk, coming from the edge and Davis buzzing down to replace him. It’s a three-deep, zone pressure.

Davis sits outside leverage on Gronk so he stems his route to the inside. Sean Spence is trying to play the sticks but also doesn’t get enough depth to squeeze the throw and again Mitchell, based on depth and alignment, can’t close on the ball except to make the tackle.

And finally, the two-point conversion which proved to be a pivotal play. Gronk split out Iso on Davis this time, not Burns (who is working on the other side, his usual LCB spot). Gronk, like he did before, stems to attack Davis half man. Davis tries to press and attempts to stay square but is shuffling his feet inside based off the initial release. His hands are too high, there’s no power, and Gronk swaps hips as soon as he gets vertical.

Davis is flailing and trailing. Easy catch for Gronkowski, who high points the football and converts.

So what can we conclude? Obviously, Gronk is an elite player and it’s hard to bash Davis and Burns too much for not being up to task but clearly, Davis especially, didn’t play with great technique.

Bracketing is a logical next step and yeah, the Steelers probably didn’t do enough of that. But they didn’t run Cover 2, they were trying to get a safety underneath and have the single high safety discourage the middle of field throw. But when the Patriots go empty and spread you horizontally the way they do, it is hard to bracket. And if you try. you’ll identify it immediately. Hard to hide anything in empty.

But the Steelers didn’t do a good job taking away the middle of the field. Mitchell had too much depth to truly take away any in-breaking routes and the Steelers often leveraged themselves to take away the outside. There is no good side to take away but the outside at least cuts down on the space he has to work, forces a more difficult throw, and limits the chance for YAC.

Once the coaches film comes out, we’ll get a better chance to revisit the topic. But if the Steelers see the Patriots again, they gotta come up with a better plan.

Because when it comes to Gronk, that boy is poooooision….


About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • DoctorNoah

    See if Grimble can play defense? They’re at least close to the same size…

    Honestly, Davis just isn’t big enough. Gronk can -literally- swat him away like a fly. Embarrassing. Technique could be a little better, but this is an issue of scheme.

    You’re absolutely right that bracketed coverage opens up outside receivers and that empty sets make anything hard to disguise. Late to the ball because of disguise and Brady will hit the open receiver with a 2-step drop and dink and dunk down the field.

    The elephant in the room is not Sean Davis on Grink or poor safety play – not a lot of missed tackles or missed assignments. The elephant in the room is that Tuitt and Hargrave got interior pressure only occasionally, And the running game, which is crap, was potent enough to leave us open to play action still. The only way to beat Brady is up the gut. And our interior line didn’t get it done enough. Better than last year, to be sure, but not quite enough.

  • StrengthOfVictory

    I’m sorry, but on that 2nd and 10, how are the Pats not called for holding? The only reason Brady has the time to step up and Gronk has the time to get open there is because the Pats’ O-line is allowed to blatantly hold Dupree and then Hargrave when he moves laterally. It’s not even a question. Not a single flag for the Pats holding all game long. It’s absolutely stunning.

    I bring that up, because I think the Steelers did enough more than once to keep these plays from happening. But short of throwing up their hands, what else can the D-line do when they’re being held again and again?

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Not that it matters, but I still think the gronk suspension was kept at one game so he could play in this game.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Can’t blame Burns for his but Davis just flat out can’t cover. If the Steelers put him on Gronk even once in a second meeting they have failed.

    Let me ask you something Alex, with Haden back do you think putting him on Gronk would have any chance of success while keeping Sutton on the outside? I know Haden isn’t going to give you as good when it comes to tackling as a safety but would he be a better match for Gronk? Seems to me like Sutton had a solid game so it wouldn’t necessarily hurt you to bring him in and move Haden over Gronk when the situation calls for it.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Yeah I am not much of a conspiracy guy but NOBODY can tell me that at a minimum the optics don’t look shady here. Add onto it the overturned James call and…..well, definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  • kdubs412

    Davis is awful in coverage and Mike Mitchell hasn’t made a play all season, simple as that. Slot corner zone blitz call at midfield is indefensible.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Burns and Davis are both average players. The Steelers need to find a defender who can match up with Gronk, or at least bracket him with taller players. He’s been the main weapon and they’ve got no real plan to cover him.

  • Nolrog

    That 2 point was horrid. Gronk took 2 steps and Davis was 5 yards away.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    But that was at least a question. If he makes the catch, there’s nothing they could have done.

  • Chris92021

    Sigh. Sad thing is, Davis would have been awesome in the NFL….20 years ago. He flat out does not belong in today’s NFL where safeties have to cover much more than ever. I am no fan of Butler but I lost more respect for him last night after he put Davis in bad situations again and again. Butler’s arrogance that Gronkowski can be covered with one below average safety with poor coverage skills and little confidence needs to get him fired. When it became clearly evident that Brady went into full newbie Madden mode and was only going to throw to Gronkowski, the Steelers should have adjusted and put 2, 3 guys on him. Heck, I would have been OK if Amendola or Cooks got more targets in the final drive. This is beyond infuriating.

  • Sven_Hunkstrom

    If these two teams play again, I’d look for the Patriots to no-huddle the Steelers to death. Think 2002 season opener. Steelers will be playing to win a close one at the end, Patriots will be playing to score as many points as they can.

  • John Pennington

    When the steelers go to the draft next year they need to take a better look at players who they want to play in the secondary.Davis and Burns should be a red flag to them.You have one who doesn’t understand coverages and doesn’t like to tackle and Davis who just cant safety in the NFL.They have to do a way better job scouting these players or fire the scouts for not doing their job for not finding the right talent.Spend money on the secondary with the right people who can play the scheme you want to run who can cover understand coverages not afraid to tackle and support the run.Thats the players the steelers need plus who are smart.

  • WreckIess

    I just want to know how Keith Butler looks at this and makes zero adjustments? I understand Davis’s faults in his technique, but did he think that would get better in a play? Then on the two point conversion after he had already been getting his teeth kicked in all drive, with a chance to keep the game at a one point lead, they line him up on Gronk once again and expect things to go differently?

    That series of events and Ben’s decision at the end of the game are the two most inexcusable calls of the game for me.

  • Edward Dentzel

    You know, the more I look at those GIF’s, the more it makes me think that Mike Mitchell is to blame for those catches. He is SO far back and the Patriots wide outs are covered. How far is Mitchell going to drop back . . . the end zone? On the one, the line of scrimmage is the Patriots 23 and when the pass is thrown, Mitchell is on the Steelers 45. That seems way too deep, especially considering that the wide receivers are covered on that play. On the other, the ball is on the Patriots 49, and Mitchell is on the Steelers 23 when the ball is thrown–not to mention that Brady is 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he throws it. And once again the WR’s are covered–the cornerbacks are doing a good job. What is Mitchell doing?

  • nutty32

    Gronk got his but Div & Divoe (Cook, WRs) were essentially kept in check. All 22 might show otherwise, but Brady and their OC certainly know what they’re doing and make defenses pick their poison.

  • www_jonahyo_net

    Brian Allen is on the 53 man and looks fast and is a physical specimen. He’s 6’3 and looks about 215 lbs. or more. Still a rookie, no doubt, but man Sean Davis was flat-out schooled. Brady and Gronk are a phenomenal duo though, often confused with the ambiguously gay duo.

  • nutty32

    Hogan went off on us last year.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Also, I didn’t mean that as, the NFL wants NE to win, as much as they want him in the game for ratings.

  • Ben Saluri

    Why not give TJ a shot at em. Similar size ,TJ definitely has the athletic ability. What could it hurt??

  • PittShawnC

    I guess my concern with trying anything different is would it open anything else up?
    Aside from Cooks’ big catch, he was 3-17. Amendola 2-23. White/Lewis 3-21. That’s pretty good.

    19 pts allowed and TB passing for 221 yds after 56 minutes. Honestly, I’d rather keep things as close to yesterday’s scheme as possible.

  • Edo M

    I would like to know how many yards Gronk had in the first half vs the 2nd because I thought we did a pretty good job on him in the first. In the 2nd half he was allowed to roam free and that makes it really easy for most any QB. So i suggest at issue here, is the Steelers making the adjustment (a bad one) more so than the Patriots being brilliant strategists……we get the lead? we go into a prevent defense that doesnt prevent anything and thats why we have so few convincing wins. I say put Watt on Gronk the next time and try that and mix up the rest of the D. I really think that Watt is faster than Mitchell and Gay and others in the secondary and he is much bigger

  • Alex Kozora

    I just don’t know how much more success he’s going to have. You now have a smaller player. Sure, better technique but we’ve seen Gay try to challenge him before, years ago, to massive failure.

  • Intense Camel

    Although Gronk did dominate this game, I have to say it was encouraging that we never saw a long pass that ended with him waltzing into the endzone. That just speaks to how terrible they’ve been in previous matchups.

  • Roger Wesley

    we need to but a big fast body on him. t.j. watt he’s fast enough and big enough hope we do that when we meet them in playoffs

  • Intense Camel

    Davis did a better job individually than any other player we’ve tried to put on him. Even when he was beat at least he made the tackle to stop him.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    That is where I was leaning but we also say Hilton have some success against Gronk last night despite a major size disadvantage and Haden has been good against Green who is tall. I dunno, just a thought. It certainly can’t be worse than Davis.

  • David Shoff

    Why Davis on gronk? Because he played cornerback in college? Well he want a good cb and that’s why he is playing safety.

  • David Shoff

    Alex? Does the person covering gronk have to run right next to him? Why can’t the defender run right in between him and the QB? At least Brady would have to throw over the defender instead of it being an easy pitch and catch.

  • Mike

    My question is why didn’t Gronkowski getting a penalty for taunting Davis
    after the touchdown that gave the Patriots a 27 – 24 lead?

  • Gronk is a matchup nightmare. Davis didn’t do himself any favors though. We are on the opposite side of that same problem with AB. No body can cover these two. Give and take. Hopefully they can come up wit a solution to better limit him should we play again.

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    If Mitchell is going to play 20 yards off the ball, I don’t see how we’re going to present more of a challenge to Gronkowski.

  • JohnB

    He’s a free safety…he’s supposed to be deep most plays.

  • TroymanianDevil

    Why didn’t we just double Gronk then.
    I understand that wouldn’t be feasible all game. But if we had a robber anyways, he could’ve at least been useful and doubled up Gronk. And definitely on that last drive

  • D Anon

    Who held? Just looked at all 5 lineman and didn’t see a single hold.

  • D Anon

    Name a player suspended for 2 games for a late hit.

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    He’s the only guy I ever see playing more than 15 yards off the LOS. I understand that is the system Pittsburgh runs, but it is not going to work against this team. The Steelers adapted to play press man for the first time against NE and it was largely a success. Time to make another tweak. Mitchell has to move up and contest more catches. It’s going to leave guys alone on the outside, but so be it. Unless you want to have someone else challenge Gronk at the line before handing him off to the DB.

  • StrengthOfVictory

    Dupree is held. His arm is hooked and his shoulder pad held (with two hands) as he comes around the edge. It’s clear as day. Then, when Brady steps up in the pocket (same play), Hargrave moves laterally (to his right) to get to Brady, and is held. His blocker doesn’t disengage.

  • cencalsteeler

    “Mitchell had too much depth to truly take away any in breaking routes”.
    First, I can’t believe you actually wrote this ;).
    Second, there lies the problem.
    With that deep of coverage, there is never any safety help until the catch has already been made. The window over the middle is too big and will continue to be exploited until that issue is addressed. Regardless of man, zone, this deep safety coverage is our problem.

  • JohnB

    Thats the FS role unless they give him an assignment. Not just in the steelers scheme but throughout the sport of football.

  • Charles Haines

    Vontez Burffict no?

  • Charles Haines

    Steelers have a 6’3 DB on the active roster who is also much faster than Gay, why not have him shadow Gronk? Or is this something Butler/Tomlin need 6 months to come up with a different strategy?

  • cencalsteeler

    Glad to see people finally taking notice to this. Ball was at the 20 and MM was at the 45,…the wrong 45. If he plays tighter, he contests that throw, possibly picks off the throw, or Brady doesn’t even throw to Gronk because he’s covered. We’ve changed players, coverages and schemes, but we have never addressed this. Hence, the same ol same ol.

  • kdubs412

    THIS. Just take out gay and have him jam him at the line! Davis can be the second line of defense and Mitchell can still play deep! You have a 7-5 numbers advantage when you’re playing against empty set with a four man rush. And we did NOTHING to use that to our advantage in a game where we were getting killed by the same guy over and over and over!

  • OregonKris

    Couple of thoughts:
    1. Brian Allen on Gronk? Long, Athletic, and fast–give it a try Butler. Quit getting out-coached.
    2. Some stats from last night:

  • pkeats86

    I was wondering if we were going to throw Brian Allen at him just to give him some length and speed to try to deal with. I wonder if that will be looked at going forward. I am not saying Allen will hold him down but, at least we won’t be pulling Davis into the duty. He needs to be allowed to roam at SS if you ask me. He isn’t going to win many one on one battles in coverage but, he can affect the game in other ways. I think it was you that brought up how we deployed Justin Gilbert into Kelce duty last year. I was kinda hoping for that again.

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    I know what the free safety role is. Just like I know that as early as pop warner football you are taught to play 12-15 yards off the ball when you are playing the position. It is onl in the Steeler’s scheme that I have ever seen a FS play so far from the LOS. I also know that Sean Davis was playing with outside leverage the entire game. Alex also references this in the article. The FS also knows this. And, had he not been so far out of so many plays before the ball was even snapped, he may have been able to do something to help out. I’m not saying that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be either. It’s not Mitchell’s fault. He lined up where they told him to and where he always does and he played his assignment. If the Steelers want to better defend Gronk, Mitchell needs to be more active in helping out with him. The coaches need to move him closer to the ball and give him that very assignment.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    If you are talking about Allen I would guess it is because he hasn’t shown a great ability to cover but it is just a guess.

  • Charles Haines

    I think Mitch was protecting against a DB getting torched on double move

  • Charles Haines

    I am referring to Allen and we’ve all seen an inability to cover Gronk, how much worse could he be?

  • www_jonahyo_net

    I mentioned Brian Allen a few hours ago on this thread, and to me at least, he seems like an interesting player to perhaps start seeing some reps. I know he’s a rookie and a late round pick but he’s a pretty impressive athlete. Some people are suggesting TJ Watt on Gronk. It’s such a tough call because Gronk is a obviously nightmare to cover with one man. It’s going to take some sort of double team I think, especially when he starts catching fire like in the second half last night.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    As soon as we see a late hit like the one Gronk delivered, including that his hit concussed the player, I’m certain we’ll see it then.

    The NFL doesn’t get concerned with things like consistency, especially where optics are concerned.

    But we haven’t seen that kind of late hit since the NFL started fining and suspending for those things.

  • Bradys_Dad

    Attention PA, NY and OH – let’s all stop supporting G&G Fitness. Gronk shows us no respect and he has more than enough money to support his family. The nation needs to rebel !

    OK – just kidding … sort of.

  • John A Stewart

    Butler and Lake have to go how in hot hell you don’t have Mitchell help Davis. Mitchell was just back there not doing nothing, just watched First Take Ryan Clark said him or Troy and Farrior would had said to Butler this defense you calling is not working against Gronk. And I don’t understand why is this coaching staff so damn thick headed. I didn’t think I was going too like Romo but his comments about our play calling was spot on. As long as we have this coaching staff and scouts we will never sad too say beat Brady and Gronk.

  • John A Stewart

    Our scout team SUCKS !

  • John Pennington

    Steelers had the wrongman covering Gronk and paid the price for it.They seen just like everyone else that Davis couldn’t cover Gronk and instead of making a change they let the beat down to continue.Tomlin Butler Lake all had their hand in this mess.Lets don’t forget Burns letting run by him for another big play and nothing is done about that either.MM should have grabbed Burns and knock some sense into him but you can’t knock out whats not there I guess.

  • Matt Manzo

    I’ve been wondering the same thing!

  • cencalsteeler

    The problem here is that is how LeBeaus system was and Butler was his understudy. We are stuck in a scheme with our FS that is outdated. Gronks best games are always against the Steelers and it’s not just by chance.

  • cencalsteeler

    Didn’t hear Romo or Clarks comments, but John, you know I’ve been preaching this for a long time! The Pats expose that big window created by our deep FS play. If you look at our D, that is one position that has stayed constant and the Pats dominance has also stayed constant.