A year ago, Heinz Field was the scene of a performance the Pittsburgh Steelers won't soon forget. The then-rookie tight end from New England, Rob Gronkowski, hauled in five passes – three for scores – and 72 yards. His big day helped pace the Patriots to a 39-26 victory.
"It was just execution, I believe, last year," Gronkowski explained today. "That's what we have to do this year – use all our weapons … execute on every drive, not just a couple."
The 6-6, 265-pounder is a mismatch for most defenses, which means some teams may try to cover him with a safety, or a linebacker, even a cornerback. Sometimes, a combination of the three.
"It depends on what type of team we are playing and what their personnel is. I have definitely seen safeties before, linebackers before and I have seen corners this year," he continued. "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."
In that 2010 game, Gronkowski's fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, was blanked on the stat sheet. This, just a week after he was the lone bright spot in a loss at Cleveland, where he caught a pair of Tom Brady touchdowns.
Chances are, Hernandez won't be shut out again this year, particularly if the Steelers focus on eliminating Gronkowski from the equation.
"He is a great player and when he is out there, god," Gronkowski said of Hernandez. "Along with our other wide receivers and along with our other running back and everything, they just have to take care of everyone so you can't just focus on someone because there are so many great players out there on our whole offense."
"They've played us pretty good a few times, too," Brady was quick to point out to reporters. "We've had our moments and they've had their moments. I think we realize the kind of challenge that it is and we put a lot of time into the preparation and we put a lot of effort into understanding what we're trying to accomplish from a game plan standpoint and then we've executed well. It's a good defense; it's a very good defense. They're first in the league in pass defense and I know you probably don't care about that, but there pretty damn good if you ask me."
In addition to the matchups, New England may have another advantage this week as they come off their bye week. The Patriots have won eight straight games immediately following the bye, but this is the first time they will have faced Pittsburgh in this situation.
"We've got a lot installed at his point – more than we would normally have on a normal week and we practiced yesterday, so we're ahead on our preparation," Brady noted. "They've played seven games this year. That's what you look at; you look at what they've done and what they've done in the past and try to formulate a game plan. We got off to a decent start yesterday."
One final note on Gronkowski. He made news over the bye week for appearing in a highly publicized photo with an adult film actress. In the picture, a shirtless Gronkowski is seen grinning as the young woman is wearing his Patriots jersey and little else.
"I didn't intend to hurt the reputation of anyone on the New England Patriots, or on behalf of Robert Kraft. It was just a simple picture and that's all," a clearly contrite Gronkowski told reporters. "I love this organization, love being part of it. Not trying to put anyone on the map or anything."
He also admitted that he'd talked about the matter with the owner himself.
"Yes, and I'll just leave it there."
"My body's feeling good. I'm ready to go this week," Gronkowski declared. "We had a good practice yesterday. Looking forward to the practice today and getting some hitting in with full pads on … can't wait to get out to practice and focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers because that's all I'm worried about and all I care about."
Wallace a 60-minute challenge
Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace is quickly becoming one of the more dangerous pass catchers in the NFL.
Today, cornerback Devin McCourty raved about the Steeler receiver's elite speed and overall development.
"Yeah, he's probably the fastest [in the NFL]. With him, sometimes, they just say, 'Line up and use your speed. Just go.' It's difficult.
"Everybody in the league is taking notice that he's running better routes," McCourty continued, "he's running more routes, and I think they're using him in different places, which makes him even tougher to cover."
Walking through the locker room with a medical boot on his left foot, center Dan Koppen paused for a couple of minutes to talk with reporters.
Koppen has been on the shelf since injuring the foot in Week 1 at Miami. He's now on injured reserve, and was philosophical about being relegated to the sideline for the entire year.
"You're in the trenches, bodies are flying around all the time, and sometimes you get hit," he said. "People have been hurt before. I've been hurt before. You lean on your family, obviously my line mates and their support. Everyone around here's been great. It's just been fun being around and being a part of the team and rooting them on as well as I can from watching it."
Koppen added that he understood why the team had to shelve him for the year, even though he might've had a chance to return later in the season. It would have been an involved process to rehab, he acknowledged, and the club would not have had the luxury of keeping him on the active roster for an extended period.
He is just now able to get workouts in on a limited basis as he continues his rehabilitation.
"Well, I just got off crutches," he revealed, "so, I'm pretty happy about that. Just getting back to working out and taking it slow. No rush back now, just heal it up 100 percent and be ready to go next year."
But will he be back in a Patriots uniform next year? Koppen is currently in the final year of his contract and punted when the subject came up today.
"I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he replied. "I'm enjoying where I'm at right now, rooting these guys on, hoping they have a great season. You know, we'll deal with that later.
"Oh, yeah, yeah, this is a minor bump in the road. Hopefully, I'll be here."
For details on today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.