Plenty of things went sideways down the stretch of Patriots-Steelers on Sunday. Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James either did or did not make a go-ahead touchdown catch with 28 seconds left in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger definitely didn’t spike the ball with eight seconds remaining to set up a field goal that very likely would have tied the game 27-27 and sent the game into overtime. But uncertainties aside, one thing beyond argument was the unalloyed dominance of Rob Gronkowski in his return from a one-game suspension.
Gronkowski had nine catches for 168 yards against a defense that had been determined to stop him. He caught passes with defenders draped over him and inaccurate throws from Tom Brady. He created space down the seam and made catches in traffic over the middle. He was a lot.
Gronkowski’s return also made a noticeable difference for Brady, who had looked vulnerable without his tight end, especially when going deep. The Patriots have been without top wideout Julian Edelman all season after he suffered a season-ending ACL tear during the preseason, and they were also without receiver Chris Hogan on Sunday. And even though the Patriots showed last season that they can succeed — win a Super Bowl! — without Gronkowski,1 Edelman doubled his per-game receiving average in the second half of the season and had 342 yards in New England’s three playoff games. Brady has struggled over the past several seasons when neither Edelman nor Gronkowski is on the field.
Here’s how New England’s passing game has gone with and without Gronkowski on the field this season (which has, of course, played out entirely without Edelman):
|Gronkowski on the field?|
|Yards / target||8.6||7.7|
|First downs / target||0.69||0.32|
|Air yards / target||9.4||7.4|
Gronk’s effect as a receiver himself should be obvious enough — he’s an enormous target with sure hands. But the way he opens up the offense overall, or perhaps the way the offense contracts when he isn’t around, has a greater effect on the offense as a whole than even his impressive personal numbers suggest. While the receiving yards per target gained remain about the same when Gronk sits — yards per target fall from 8.6 to 7.7 — the average air yards per target fall off considerably, as do the team’s first downs per target. And even though Brady is excellent at short, quick passes, it’s not the same without Gronkowski eating up chunks of yardage and opening up lanes for teammates to do the same.
Even with Gronkowski’s standout performance, the game came down to that chaotic final minute. Maybe it goes differently if Pittsburgh doesn’t lose its own driving-engine receiver, Antonio Brown, early in the game. There are a lot of mysteries about what could have happened in this specific game. But any doubts raised by New England’s loss to Miami in Week 14 seem to have been put to rest: Brady and the Patriots are still just fine, so long as Gronkowski is on the field.
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