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Tim Benz: Brady and Gronk hurt the Steelers worse than you think | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: Brady and Gronk hurt the Steelers worse than you think

Tim Benz
| Thursday, December 13, 2018 5:28 a.m.
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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots celebrate a 5-yard touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter of Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis.

It’s the nearly annual drumbeat of “Patriots Week” in Pittsburgh: How are Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski going to skewer the Pittsburgh Steelers this year?

The Steelers have managed to win just once in six tries against New England when that quarterback and tight end combination have been on the field together. They’ve hooked up 39 times for 664 yards and eight touchdowns. Their yards per target is 13.55. Their target percentage is 79.6.

Aside from that, they’ve been ineffective, I guess.

There’s an easy way to tamp down the feeling of inadequacy against the two future Hall of Famers. And it’s by remembering that — well — they are both future Hall of Famers.

So, you know, they do this to everybody! And that should make all Steelers fans feel better.

Right?

If only that were true.

As we outlined after the Pats won at Heinz Field in 2017, Brady and Gronk have been disproportionately good against the Steelers during their nine-year partnership.

They certainly were during that afternoon last December en route to a 27-24 win. Brady hit the WPIAL alum on 9-of-13 passes for 168 yards and a crucial two-point conversion.

In six games against the Black and Gold, Gronkowski has averaged 110 yards. That’s his best average against any AFC team. He has eight touchdowns. Only twice-a-year divisional foes Buffalo (12 in 14 games) and Miami (9 in 13 games) have allowed more Gronkowski scores.

Those 664 career yards against the Steelers are 219 more yards than any other team outside the AFC East has yielded to him.

As for Brady, he’s 11-2 versus the Steelers, including 3-0 in the playoffs. His touchdown-to-interception ratio versus the local club is 30-4.

In non-divisional play, only the Colts have suffered more losses to Brady. The Jaguars (71 percent) are the only AFC team to yield a higher completion percentage to him than the Steelers (68 percent) in regular-season play. And Brady’s average of 312 yards per game against the Steelers is tops among AFC competition.

One guy who tried to cover Gronkowski frequently last year was Sean Davis. Since then, he has been moved from strong safety to free safety. But the third-year defensive back is expecting to cover Gronk a bunch again even if he isn’t “manned up” against him.

“I’m still playing free (safety),” Davis said Wednesday. “Just looking forward to shadowing him to make sure he doesn’t have a huge impact making the big plays on us like he did last year. It’s my job specifically to make sure he doesn’t gash us.”

But Davis cautioned “shadow” doesn’t mean following Gronkowski all over the field like Joe Haden often does versus another team’s star wide receiver.

“I’m going to be in the post. I’m going to make sure if he’s running deep that’s where my eyes are. Make sure he doesn’t catch the ball deep on us,” Davis added.

Cam Sutton and Artie Burns both could see more time this week and may be in the mix to take a run at Gronkowski in various looks.

In general, defensive end Cameron Heyward — who was a rookie back in 2011 when the Steelers last beat New England — says the Steelers have simply allowed the Patriots’ two big guns to stay “in their comfort zone” too often.

“As a defense, we’ve never come up with a stop when we’ve needed it the most,” Heyward said. “We (as a pass rush) can make Brady uncomfortable. But I look for our secondary to make (Gronkowski) uncomfortable, as well.”

Over his 13 career games against the Black and Gold, Brady has been sacked only an average of 1.92 times per start. Not too discomforting for the visiting Patriots.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he’s ever seen anything work against Brady and Gronkowski.

“Yes. But we haven’t been a part of it,” Tomlin deadpanned. “We’re looking to be.

“When you play a guy like (Gronkowski), it’s going to be multiple people and multiple coverages.”

Does “multiple” mean sneaking a 12th or 13th guy on the field? Because short of that, I’m not sure what else will help on Sunday.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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