Kevin Gorman: Steelers safety Sean Davis ready for rematch with Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski
This is the NFL, Sean Davis said, and there are no mismatches. The Pittsburgh Steelers safety was repeating a Mike Tomlin mantra: The best team doesn’t win. The team that plays the best wins the game.
“I take that to heart,” Davis said. “That means anyone can get beat.”
Davis speaks from experience about mismatches and even more expertly about getting beat, especially against the New England Patriots. The Steelers safety wasn’t just repeatedly beaten by Rob Gronkowski last December but was mocked afterward when the Patriots tight end pointed at Davis before breaking into a robot touchdown dance.
“I’ve grown from that,” Davis said. “I’ve become a better player.”
Davis had nowhere to go but up, as he reached his nadir against the Patriots. The Steelers had a 24-19 lead with 2:06 remaining when New England took over at its own 23. On the first play, Tom Brady’s pass was tipped by Cameron Heyward but Davis dropped what would have been an interception. Davis said afterward he felt “terrible” for “letting a win slip out of your hands.”
It only got worse from there.
Gronkowski caught back-to-back 26-yard passes, then a 17-yard shoestring catch late in the fourth quarter to set up Dion Lewis’ go-ahead touchdown. Gronkowski then beat Davis on a corner fade for a two-point conversion in the Patriots’ 27-24 victory at Heinz Field.
By that point, you almost had to feel sorry for Davis. If it wasn’t bad enough that CBS color analyst Tony Romo highlighted their matchup by circling the single coverage on the screen before the two-point play, Jim Nantz did the trick by proclaiming “He’s killing Davis!”
Welcome to the NFL, kid.
Gronkowski’s nine-catch, 168-yard game has hung over Davis like a black cloud for almost a year. But Davis has moved from strong safety to free safety, where he serves as the last line of defense, so it’s unlikely he will cover Gronkowski in the same fashion as last season.
“That’s football,” said Davis, who did not practice Wednesday because of a knee injury. “That’s been lingering in this room and in the DB room, especially for me. I’m trying to get my run back. But it’s a little different this year. I’m going to be playing deep. I’m going to try to make sure those deep shots Gronk got on me last year he’s not going to get this year.”
Davis is far from alone in being busted up by Gronkowski, a 6-foot-6, 265-pounder who will go down in NFL history as a transcendent tight end. The Woodland Hills graduate has 39 receptions for 664 yards and eight touchdowns in six games against the Steelers, averaging 17.03 yards per catch and 110.7 per game.
But tight ends have tortured the Steelers all season, and Davis is taking it upon himself to be more assertive in his communication with the defense. Despite the secondary’s struggles during a three-game losing streak, the Steelers continue to express faith in Davis in deep coverage.
“We trust him,” Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton said. “We know what he’s capable of. That was a hard test he got put into last year, so we’re going to find ways to give him some help this year.”
Davis doesn’t lack for confidence. Even after the loss to the Patriots, he made these bold proclamations: “I ain’t scared of them. I ain’t scared of ‘Gronk.’ I ain’t scared of Brady. We’re all not. We’re going to see them again and run it back. They’re beatable. We had ’em. We’ve just got to do a better job of executing and put a dagger in ’em.”
Instead, the Jacksonville Jaguars put a dagger in the Steelers’ hopes for an AFC championship game rematch with the Patriots.
Davis refused to back down from those words Wednesday, believing the Steelers can win if they play their best.
“I still believe that. I stand by it,” Davis said. “This year, we’ve just got to back it up.”
Delivering a dagger to Gronkowski would be a good start.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.