BOSTON (CBS) — Patriots fans across New England rolled their eyes in January when Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane said this about tight end Rob Gronkowski: “I actually don’t think he’s that good…He’s OK. He does have a big body. But from what I’ve seen on tape, he doesn’t like you putting your hands on him. So if we put our hands on him and shake him up a little bit, he won’t catch that many balls.”
Lane did end up playing reasonably well in the Super Bowl, notching an interception, but the Seahawks didn’t do enough to slow down Gronk: he ended up with 6 catches on 10 targets for 68 yards and a touchdown. Not a dominating performance, but certainly enough to help the Patriots win.
Which begs the question: Why does anyone ever talk trash about the Greatest Tight End On Earth?
Gronk is arguably the hardest player in the league to cover and it’s virtually impossible to take him completely out of the game. Even if defenses can limit Gronk, he still gets his catches. But the Patriots’ opening night opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, know what they need to do if they want a chance at slowing Gronk down: they need to jam him at the line of scrimmage and throw off the Patriots’ timing.
That’s not exactly breaking news, but the Steelers learned that the hard way when they last met the Patriots in Foxboro in 2013. Gronk finished the game with 9 catches on 10 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown. He had a free release off the line on several plays, and on the touchdown catch linebacker Jarvis Jones covered Gronk well, but let him off the line without contact.
Safety Shamarko Thomas recorded three tackles on Gronk in that game. He returns for the Steelers in Thursday’s season opener, along with Jones, but they will also have new faces tasked with covering Gronk for the first time.
Safety Shamarko Thomas tackled Gronk three times the last time the Steelers faced the Patriots. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Second-year linebacker Ryan Shazier, a first-round pick out of Ohio State, delivered the Steelers’ message to Gronk when asked about how to defend him: “You just have to jam him up a little bit, mess with his timing…If you mess up their timing, they are really time-oriented. You have to mess up their timing and get in his face with pressure, then I feel we can slow him down a little bit.”
That’s not nearly as obtuse as ‘I don’t think he’s that good’, but Shazier insinuates that simply jamming Gronk “a little bit” will be enough to slow him down. Not that Shazier should act afraid, but that’s a lot of confidence for a second-year player who has never faced the three-time First Team All-Pro before.
Another new face for the Steelers, safety Mike Mitchell, faced Gronk back when the Patriots played the Raiders in 2011. He said what pretty much everyone already knows: “[Gronk] has success when people don’t put their hands on him.”
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Of course, words mean nothing once the cleats hit the turf. But reporters did their due diligence and asked Gronk about the Steelers’ comments and how he feels about getting hit.
He likes it.
“You always like to feel that hit, it feels good to get hit – it’s a physical game,” he said. “So once that first hit goes, it’s just like any other time, you just keep playing the game. It comes naturally, feels good.”
On getting jammed at the line, he added: “Some games I get jammed the whole game, some games I never get jammed. So when we go out there and practice, we practice everything – getting jammed, not getting jammed, how to get off it, a little move…Whatever comes, I have to be ready, go out and perform.”
He also pulled a classic Patriots move and praised the Steelers D: “They’re good. They’re big, they’re physical, they play the game of football how it’s supposed to be played.”
Clearly, Gronk is not the least bit intimidated by the Steelers’ comments and is prepared for whatever they will do to try to defend him on Thursday. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are gone and some of the workload will go to players facing Gronk for the first time.
In preparing for Gronk and the Patriots, talk is cheap. They mostly do their talking on the field. The Steelers can say they’re going to jam Gronk and slow him down, but actually doing it is a different challenge altogether.