No other team in the National Football League creates mismatches and exploits weaknesses more than the New England Patriots. Of course, it helps when the quarterback is Tom Brady.
For proof, witness what happened last year at Heinz Field when the Patriots pounded the Steelers, 39-26, by throwing three touchdown passes to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.
In all three instances, Gronkowski was matched in man coverage against nickel back William Gay.
"It starts at top with Bill Belichick," safety Ryan Clark said. "It starts with his savvy of knowing that we're going to go out and beat teams in a way we can beat them. There are some weeks they have packages just for the week. One week it's five wide receivers and the next week it's two tight ends."
That is what the Patriots did to the Steelers in 2010 and probably what they are hoping to accomplish today when they play at Heinz Field.
This time, though, it won't be a surprise.
Gronkowski and the other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, are not sneaking up on anyone this year. The Patriots use a lot of two-tight end sets. It gives them a lot of versatility on offense and keeps opposing defenses guessing.
"What they did last year is well documented, but they are taking off from where they left off, even moving forward in some areas," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They have a great rapport with their quarterback, not only in open grass but in the red zone."
Gronkowski, who played his senior season at Woodland Hills High School, is second on the team to wide receiver Wes Welker with 29 catches, 401 yards and five touchdowns. Hernandez, who is often split wide, is third with 27 catches for three touchdowns.
Gronkowski (6-6, 265) is on pace to catch 13 touchdowns, which would tie the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in one season. Vernon Davis of San Francisco (2009) and San Diego's Antonio Gates (2004) hold the record. In 22 games, he already has 15 touchdowns, the most by a tight end since 2010.
Last year against the Steelers, Gronkowski caught five passes for 72 yards and had touchdowns of 19, 9 and 25 yards---- the latter in which he ran by Gay when the Steelers' nickel back and safety Troy Polamalu appeared to be confused about which player to cover. But Gronkowski also beat Gay on his previous touchdowns, too -- the second when he delayed along the line of scrimmage to block then flared into the right flat.
That is part of the matchup problem with Gronkowski. He is too big to be covered by a corner and too quick for a linebacker. Either way, Brady will try to exploit the mismatch -- something he and the Patriots do better than anyone.
"It depends on what type of team we are playing and what their personnel is," Gronkowski said. "I have definitely seen safeties before, linebackers before and I have seen corners this year. You just have to be ready for all and study the defense that you are playing this week so you possibly might know who is going to be on you. So you prepare and you have to be ready for all situations, just so, no matter what situation comes, you are ready."
That might be good advice for the Steelers.