Patriots-Steelers Film Review: Dissecting Rob Gronkowski’s $2.5M Drive

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The New England Patriots announced their Week 15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the NFL’s most-watched game since 2015, meaning tight end Rob Gronkowski picked an opportune time to look completely uncoverable.

Gronkowski can earn an extra $2.5 million in incentives if he wins first-team All-Pro honors this season. If NFL writers don’t vote for Gronkowski after be picked up 168 yards on nine receptions, including three catches for 69 yards on the Patriots’ game-winning drive Sunday, then it’s unclear what they were watching Sunday afternoon. Perhaps a Hallmark Christmas movie?

Let’s take a closer look at the Patriots’ fourth-quarter comeback.

On first-and-10 from the Patriots’ 23-yard line, the drive almost ended before it started. Quarterback Tom Brady’s target to Gronkowski was batted at the line of scrimmage, careened behind the tight end and almost was intercepted by safety Sean Davis. It was a close call.

On second-and-10, Gronkowski simply beat and shrugged off Davis at the line of scrimmage and had two steps on him by the time Brady evaded pressure and delivered a dart on the run.

After the two-minute warning, Brady barely needed to take a step to throw another strike down the middle of the field — perfectly placed between two defenders in zone — to Gronkowski, who again had two steps on Davis. Gronkowski took a hard shot to the waist but popped up and immediately gave a Hulk-like flex.

Pittsburgh again pressured Brady on first-and-10 from the Steelers’ 25-yard line. He evaded the pass rush and threw low to Gronkowski while on the run. The 6-foot-6 Gronkowski snagged the ball inches off the ground and rolled to pick up more yardage. Given Gronkowski’s height, arm length and vertical, his catch radius is about 11 feet. That’s ridiculous.

As if Gronkowski’s receiving ability wasn’t enough on the drive, he also sparked running back Dion Lewis’ 8-yard touchdown run with a key block on Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt (left side of the line).

The Patriots led 25-24 and needed a two-point conversion to ensure the Steelers couldn’t win the game on a field goal. So, where else would Brady throw than to Gronkowski, who was covered only by Davis in man coverage?Brady chucked up a fade. Gronkowski wasn’t about to be jammed at the line, pulled down the pass, shrugged off Davis, laughed at him and spiked the ball.

Of course, the game was not over. The Patriots immediately let up a 69-yard catch and run to Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe was slowed down on a pick play by Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Smith-Schuster was set to pick up just 20 yards on the play, but Patriots safety Jordan Richards inexplicably slipped and fell while attempting to tackle the Steelers wideout. That also slowed down Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who was on his way to push Smith-Schuster out of bounds.

Then Smith-Schuster was off to the races before Rowe slowed him down by diving and swiping at his legs. Smith-Schuster began stumbling until safety Duron Harmon tackled him at the 10-yard line.

Then came the score that wasn’t. Tight end Jesse James caught a would-be go-ahead touchdown until officials decided he didn’t survive the ground as the ball spun when it hit the ground.

Most sports analysts seem to think this is a dumb rule. Am I taking crazy pills for thinking the catch rule should be the same whether it’s in the end zone or not?

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler forced the Steelers into panic mode when he tackled Darrius Heyward-Bey in bounds on Pittsburgh’s next offensive play.

So, they ran up to the line, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger faked a spike then threw to wide receiver Eli Rogers, the only guy running a route. Rowe tipped the ball, and Harmon picked it out of the air for the game-winning interception.

Rogers ran a slant while the rest of the Steelers’ offense simply stood around. It seems Rogers was the only player other than Roethlisberger who knew it was a fake spike.

The Patriots’ defensive line was fooled, but Rowe, McCourty, Richards and Harmon were not.

(Yes, that’s the “Titanic” music playing in the background, and it’s hilarious.)

Here are some other observations from our film review:

— The Patriots’ linebackers are a serious weakness at this junction. David Harris is clearly on his last legs, and Elandon Roberts shot too many gaps without making any plays in the backfield. The Patriots need Kyle Van Noy back pronto.

— Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, statistically, had his worst game of the season. But the two biggest receptions he gave up were a diving catch and a touchdown hauled in with just one hand. Those are tough plays to defend.

— Left guard Joe Thuney can’t stop giving up sacks, and it’s becoming an issue. He ranked 37th among guards in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency rating through the first 12 weeks of the season. He’s 58th over the last three games. Not ideal.

— Ricky Jean Francois was impressively productive in the Patriots’ front seven in his return to the team Sunday with six tackles. Blame the Patriots’ linebackers for allowing the Steelers to rush for 143 yards and 4.6 per clip. The Patriots’ defensive tackles played well.

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