PITTSBURGH — Sooner or later, Rob Gronkowski was going to shake loose for a big play.
His New England Patriots’ teammates knew it. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense knew it. Even the vast majority of the 66,009 fans in the stands Sunday at Heinz Field knew it.
Then it happened.
The superstar tight end got free in the secondary and hauled in a 36-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady with 6:19 left in the third quarter to increase the Patriots’ lead to 20-13.
It was a play that shifted the momentum as the Steelers had scored 13 consecutive points to make it a one-point after the Patriots broke out to a 14-0 lead.
The Patriots went on to a 27-16 victory, running their winning streak to three games and staying atop the AFC East with a 6-1 record.
On the Patriots’ next series, LaGarrette Blount had a 5-yard touchdown run one play after a 37-yard reception by Gronkowski to push the lead to 27-16 with 11:49 remaining in the game.
Gronkowski had only one catch for 13 yards in the first half before his two best receptions.
So what took so long for Gronkowski to get going?
“Every game is different,” he said. “Every coverage is different every single game. Every game plan is different. We were running the ball. We were throwing a lot of under routes from the coverage, so it’s just overall a team game. That’s what makes this game so great. Everyone has to work together to win games.”
“So overall, I thought it was a solid performance with everyone doing their job on offense and our defense played great, too, to help us win.”
Gronkowski was targeted just four times and had receptions on each for a total of 93 yards while fellow tight end Martellus Bennett had only one catch for five yards. They entered the game with a combined 39 receptions for 644 yards and five touchdowns this season.
However, wide receiver Julian Edelman had nine catches for 60 yards as Brady completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Blount rushed 127 yards and two TDs on 24 carries.
“The Steelers were certainly aware of Gronk and Martellus,” Brady said. “Julian Edelman got a lot of opportunities today. He hasn’t gotten a ton the last few weeks. Running the ball was good and so was possession passes.”
Added Patriots coach Bill Belichick: “It doesn’t really matter who makes the plays just as long as we make them. So if they take somebody away or do something to neutralize one player, that’s way we have other players on the team. It’s not about featuring one guy. It’s about the team winning.”
However, when the Patriots needed Gronkowski most, he came up big by going right through the heart of the defense for his eighth touchdown against the Steelers in five career games. It was also the 68th TD catch of Gronkowski’s seven-year, tying the franchise record set by Stanley Morgan from 1977-89.
“It was just a play where there was a split safety and I just had a little bender to go right up the middle,” Gronkowski said. “I just had a good look and Tom threw the ball perfectly, right on the money for me to make the play and I just had to run, give a little move and run full speed. Just good execution.”
When asked what tying the Patriots’ record to touchdown receptions meant, Gronkowski flashed a playful smile.
“It means the next one is 69 and that’s a really good number,” he said.