Patriots

Patriots

Aside from the folks at Abacus, the Pittsburgh Steelers may be the people that are happiest Rob Gronkowski’s moved from professional football to hawking CBD.

With Gronk otherwise occupied, the semi-annual beatings he applied to the Pittsburgh defense will cease. Actually, as the Steelers game-plan this week for Sunday’s opener against the Patriots, there’s really no tight end on the Patriots roster for them to worry about.

Ben Watson’s gone for the first four games. Lance Kendrick is down for the opener. Both of them are serving PED suspensions.

Free agent acquisition Matt Lacosse hasn’t played since being rolled up on in the preseason opener.

Second-year tight end Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round pick from Florida State, is more blocker than pass-catcher though he has worked hard to gain Tom Brady’s trust this preseason and shown some promise as a receiver.

The dropoff from Gronk to anyone would be precipitous. The dropoff from Gronk to nobody at all? What’s beyond precipitous?

In his final game against the Steelers last December, Gronk caught two passes for 21 yards in a 17-10 loss. Diminished in that game after taking three massive hits the week before in Miami, that was the only time Gronk suited up against Pittsburgh and didn’t ravage them.

In seven career games against the Steelers, Gronk had 41 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns. The first time he saw them back in 2010, Gronk was coming off a disastrous game in Cleveland against the Browns. In that Sunday night game, he responded to a Tom Brady sideline meltdown in the first half by catching all five passes sent his way for 72 yards and three touchdowns. In 2011, he caught seven for 94 and then had nine catches on 10 targets for 143 yards in 2013. In 2015, he caught all four passes he was targeted with for 94 yards. He missed the playoff game against the Steelers in 2016 because of a back injury but came back in 2017 to have one of the most dominant games of his career with nine catches for 168 yards in an epic late-season game.

The Patriots will miss Gronk all season but they’ll especially miss him in this one with no other option at tight end and most of their wideouts either just back from long layoffs (Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman) or making their NFL debuts (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski).

Lacosse, the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder the Patriots brought over from Denver as a free agent, remained upbeat Sunday when I asked him about being able to play in the opener.

“It’s just a day by day thing,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing a great job in rehab and practicing. It’s been good so far and I’m just excited to keep getting better.”

Lacosse was on the field last Thursday before the preseason finale with the Giants. He was unable to complete all the routes the other tight ends were running because of his lower leg injury.  

Where will the Patriots go for offensive production against Pittsburgh? It’s not hard to predict. They will try to run the ball effectively on early downs and – when they have to have it through the air – they’ll look to Edelman or one of their running backs (mostly James White).

And since the Steelers won’t have to worry about Gronk or any viable pass-catcher at that spot they can load up to stop the guys Brady usually relies on and make him go to targets he’s got less comfort with.

This will be the first post-Gronk game for the Patriots and the Steelers have to be giddy the hard process of figuring out who they’re going to be without him begins against them.

Olszewski on making Patriots: "It was the best phone call of my life">>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.