Kevin Gorman: Steelers must stop Patriots’ Josh Gordon
Bill Belichick said the New England Patriots playing the Pittsburgh Steelers “almost feels like a division game,” a nod to the rivalry that has developed between two of the top teams in the AFC.
That feeling must be multiplied for Josh Gordon, who played hero for the Cleveland Browns in the season opener against the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Gordon caught a 17-yard touchdown with 1 minute, 58 seconds remaining in regulation to tie a game that ended in a 21-21 draw, helping the Browns end their 19-game losing streak.
That gives Gordon, who was traded to New England in September, something of an edge when the Patriots visit Heinz Field on Sunday. With this being his second meeting with the Steelers, Gordon already is familiar with their multiple coverage defensive schemes.
“Josh has done well in his adjustment and transition to a new team,” said Belichick, calling Gordon “fluent” in the Patriots offense. “He knows the offense well now to go out and do what we need to do every week.”
Gordon is the latest reclamation project to shine under Belichick’s rule, following the likes of Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount, Martellus Bennett and James Harrison. They serve as examples of the differences in discipline between the Patriots and Steelers, who have shown no interest in adding players who could be potential distractions.
After spending his first four seasons with the basement-dwelling Browns, Gordon is focused on getting his first taste of the postseason with the Patriots. That should give him all the incentive in the world to beat the Steelers, something he did only once in six games in Cleveland.
“It’s different. That’s for sure,” Gordon told ESPN late last month. “It’s exciting. It’s motivational for me and for everybody. I’ve never really got the opportunity before, considering the circumstances. So it’s great to have the opportunity now.”
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gordon is dangerous on his own, as evidenced by his first two NFL seasons. As a rookie in 2012, he had 50 catches for 805 yards and five touchdowns. The next season, Gordon had 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record back-to-back 200-yard games.
Gordon did that despite his drug and alcohol problems that led to him serving two suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, not to mention the Browns never establishing a starter at quarterback. Now, he’s catching passes from Tom Brady, arguably the game’s greatest quarterback ever.
Where Gordon’s statistics (39 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns) might appear pedestrian compared to Steelers 1,000-yard receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, Gordon is averaging 18 yards per catch, has a pair of 100-yard games and fell just short of another with five catches for 96 yards against Miami last week.
“Shoot, he’s a big man that can run,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, noting the Patriots spread the ball around to create mismatches. “He’s a deep-ball guy. If you look for anybody that’s going deep for them, it’s probably him.”
That’s just another thing for the Steelers to contend with on a checklist that starts with Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski and includes Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson. Heck, two years ago, the Steelers couldn’t stop Chris Hogan, a former lacrosse star who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC championship game.
But the Steelers already experienced firsthand that Gordon can make momentum-changing plays, even if it wasn’t enough to beat them.
“He’s played the Steelers already this year, so he’s got a feel for that. And he’s got a feel for New England, so it’s doubled on his end more so than on our end,” said Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton, who was covering Gordon on that touchdown pass. “We played him this year, but not in this system. It goes hand in hand but back and forth, too.
“He’s a well-rounded receiver with all the intangibles: He has size, speed, the hands, and he’s obviously a vertical threat and an intermediate possession threat, as well. He’s in an offense that highlights that for them. They do a good job, whether it’s schematics or with a quarterback like (Brady) creating those opportunities for him. He’s made the most of that. That’s a testament to his work and the time he puts into his craft and going out there and making plays when his number is called.”
If the Patriots call his number, Gordon could serve as a spoiler for the Steelers a second time this season.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.