FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Despite not suiting up in the preseason and admitting he was a "little rusty in some spots," New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski looked to be in midseason form in Thursday night’s opener, catching three touchdown passes and recovering a key fumble at the goal line in a 28-21 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
"It felt great to get out there, no doubt," said Gronkowski, who caught five passes for 94 yards. "It’s great to play the game of football. After not playing all preseason, it was the first game of the year and I’m not going to say I was in top-notch shape. It’s different when you go out there and play for real versus other opponents that are very good."
Those foes Gronk reserved so much praise for had no answer for the big man on Thursday night. They pledged early in the week to be physical with the 6-foot-6, 265-pound behemoth, but the tactic was not effective. Gronk ran roughshod over the Pittsburgh defense, which inexplicably left him wide open on his first touchdown of the game.
"Obviously he is a great player; he did a good job today," Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. "There were some plays that we let him have. I thought we had a good week of preparations, I thought we were prepared, I thought we were better prepared for the tempo. There were a couple of times we didn’t communicate well enough, didn’t get lined up, and they were able to get us."
Gronkowski scored the team’s first two touchdowns seven minutes apart in the second quarter to give the Patriots an early cushion, and clinched the game for New England with a fourth-quarter touchdown snag after the Steelers had cut the deficit to seven points.
His third score wouldn’t have been possible if not for his heads-up play three snaps earlier. Tom Brady had connected with running back Dion Lewis from the 22-yard line, but Lewis was stripped of the ball at the 3-yard line just when it looked like he would go in for the score.
Gronk pounced, sprinting in from out of the play, diving on the ball and recovering it inside the 1-yard line (it was initially called a touchdown but placed at the 6-inch line upon review). After two unsuccessful attempts, Brady hit Gronkowski in the back of the end zone to give the Patriots a 14-point cushion.
That scoring drive, incidentally, began with a 52-yard pass from Brady to Gronkowski, which immediately got the Patriots into field goal range and ultimately set up the score. The 52-yard reception tied for the longest of his career.
It was Gronkowski’s third three-touchdown game of his career, just one shy of Randy Moss’ team record. He also became the first player in NFL history to record multiple games of three touchdown receptions against the Steelers.