Steelers defensive back Robert Golden knows better than anyone how difficult it is to defend New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. He tried every day in practice for two years when they were teammates at the University of Arizona.
“We battled every day,” said Golden, who is in his second season with the Steelers.
Golden’s advice to his teammates as they prepare for another meeting with the NFL’s premier tight end is simple: be physical.
“You just have to get your hands on Gronk,” Golden said. “He’s aggressive and you have to be aggressive with him. He’s athletic. He gets better and better every time he plays. He’s definitely not the player he was in college. But if you can get your hands on him, it can disrupt the timing and throw him off.”
The Steelers discovered that the hard way. As a rookie in 2010, Gronkowski caught five passes for 72 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 39-26 Patriots victory at Heinz Field. In that game, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau devised a game plan that employed 5-foot-10 cornerback William Gay to cover Gronkowski on most occasions.
In a rematch one year later, LeBeau used 6-1 cornerback Cortez Allen in one-on-one coverage against the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, and the Steelers got much better results in a 25-17 victory. Gronkowski had seven receptions for 94 yards, but the Steelers kept him out of the end zone.
“I had him the majority of the time just based on how the defense played out,” Allen said. “We were able to have some success on him. You just have to be physical with him. He’s a very large target. He’s a big guy. I just have to use my skills and tools to my advantage as far as being quicker and things like that, lighter on my feet, so I can put myself in better positions to defend.”
Gronkowski, who played his senior season at Woodland Hills High School after moving from Buffalo, N.Y., missed the first six games this season after offseason surgeries on his back and forearm. But in the past two games, he has 10 receptions for 141 yards.
After catching eight passes for 114 yards in his first game against the Jets, Gronkowski was held to two catches for 27 yards in last week’s victory against the Dolphins.
“We’ve had pretty good chemistry since he got here,” New England quarterback Tom Brady said. “It usually doesn’t take too long with a guy like him. I think any quarterback could throw him the ball and look good. He’s that kind of athlete. The kind of catches he makes in traffic, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s everything you look for.
“It’s just more of getting him involved, getting back into shape and understanding what it takes to play a football season. That’s part of the challenge of any player coming back when they’ve been off. The more he’s in there, the better it seems like it’s going for him.”
Gronkowski set an NFL record last season when he became the first tight end in league history to catch 10 touchdowns or more in three consecutive seasons. Against the Jets, Gronkowski recorded his 10th 100-yard receiving game, breaking the franchise record that was held by Ben Coates.
Allen said he expects to get a shot at covering Gronkowski again at some point Sunday in New England, but he didn’t know if he would draw the assignment for the entire game the way he did two years ago.
By now, Gronkowski is used to just about everything a defensive coordinator can throw at him. He has been covered by linebackers, safeties and corners at different times throughout his career.
“They always have a good defense and they always have good schemes going into games,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve got to prepare for anything — any coverage, any zone and any guy that will be covering me. I’ve just got to prepare and be ready for anything.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.