Steelers D Succeeds with New Approach vs Patriots, but Fails Down the Stretch

It is no secret that the Steelers’ defensive approach over the last decade and a half has not been a good one for stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Soft zone against a passing game that makes its living on short and quick passes is generally going to get you beat, and beat badly. The Steelers have rarely made any adjustments to this gameplan despite its consistent failures (Except for one time, in 2011, when they actually played a ton of man coverage and managed to beat the Patriots). In Week 15, they finally made some long-needed changes.

The Steelers played some form of man coverage on 25 of 37 snaps against the Patriots on Sunday. And you know what? They had success. On those 25 snaps, Tom Brady completed 14 of 24 passes for 159 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception for a 74.8 passer rating. He was also sacked once. That means Brady completed less than 60% of his passes vs man coverage for only 6.6 yards per attempt. That’s a successful day against any quarterback, let alone Tom Brady.

Pittsburgh was very effective in two specific areas of their gameplan. The first was in eliminating New England’s running backs from the passing game. We all know how dangerous James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead can be catching the ball out of the backfield and on the perimeter. Often, this is due to the Patriots using a “21” personnel grouping (2 RBs, 1 TE), which gets defenses to match up with their slower base personnel. Out of this grouping, the Patriots then like to align their running backs on the perimeter, which helps create and identify the best mismatches for Brady (This is something we wrote about a few weeks ago).

On Sunday, though, the Steelers did something different. When New England had at least 2 of their 3 pass-catching running backs (White/Lewis/Burkhead) on the field at the same time, Pittsburgh matched up with an extra corner to cover one of them. The Steelers effectively treated the extra running back as if he was a wide receiver if he did not align in the backfield. This reduced the potential mismatches across the board.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Patriots running backs caught just 4 passes for 26 yards.

The Steelers were also very effective on 3rd down against Brady. The Patriots converted just 2 of their 8 third-down attempts through the air. On 7 of those 8 attempts, the Steelers played man-free coverage. On several of those 3rd downs, Pittsburgh used a lurk defender to hunt up crossing routes, a staple of the Patriots’ passing game. You can see a great example below. At the snap, the Steelers showed a 2-deep-safety look.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

After the snap, one safety moved down into the middle of the field to cut off any crossers. The safety here is often referred to as a “Lurk” or a “Robber.”

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

On this particular play, an easy completion with run-after-catch potential on 3rd down was taken away. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal.

All things considered, the Steelers did a pretty good job utilizing man coverage and handling everything the Patriots can throw at a defense, from motion on almost every play to unconventional alignments and unique distribution of personnel.

Yet, for all of the good things the Steelers defense did against the Patriots, they still failed to execute in too many areas. For one, they still couldn’t stop the Patriots at all when playing zone coverage. Brady was 8-11 for 139 yards vs any type of zone – a passer rating of 114.8.

The Patriots likely knew, or realized during the game, that if they were going to get zone looks, they would likely get them on 1st down. In fact, 7 of the 12 snaps of zone they did see occurred on 1st down. This was where Brady did a lot of damage, throwing for 164 of his 298 yards (an average of more than 10 yards per called passing play).

Pittsburgh also made far too many mental mistakes on Sunday. On their first series of the game, Cameron Heyward jumped offsides on a 3rd-and-1, keeping New England’s drive alive. On the very next play, Pittsburgh blew a simple Cover-3 zone, enabling an easy 43-yard pitch-and-catch for Brady and Brandin Cooks. This play is illustrated below. As you can see, the safety and two corners were each responsible for a deep third of the field.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

At the snap, Brandin Cooks took off inside towards the middle of the field while Tom Brady was completing his play action in the backfield.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Cornerback Artie Burns turned his attention away from Cooks, simply because Cooks initially released to the middle of the field.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

This was a bad idea. Cooks releasing inside did not mean that he no longer threatened Burns’ deep third of the field. Not to mention, there were no other receivers that threatened Burns’ zone.

As it turned out, Cooks was running a corner route right into Burns’ deep third. Because Burns failed to react to the only route that possibly threatened him, Cooks had leverage on Mike Mitchell, the single-high safety in the middle of the field, and the only remaining defender who could take away his route. Below, you can see the relationship between Burns, Cooks, and Mitchell, with that blue box showing no other receivers near Burns.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Not the way you want things to start if you’re the Steelers.

Later in the first half, the Steelers were caught with just 10 men on the field, leading to a 31-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski. On that same drive, the Steelers nearly gave up a touchdown on a blown man-coverage assignment. Luckily Brady was looking the other way and didn’t see the open receiver until it was too late.

For a game of this magnitude, and one that the Steelers were likely preparing for since last January, to make this many mistakes is embarrassing, if not inexcusable. The way they decided to handle Rob Gronkowski was even worse.

Gronk had a monster day, finishing with 9 receptions for 168 yards. Heading into the final drive of the game, he had 6 catches for 99 yards, 4 of which came in man coverage against safety Sean Davis. Now let us just say, as nicely as possible, it was apparent throughout the game that the Gronkowski-Davis matchup was a huge mismatch favoring the Patriots. Davis is obviously smaller than Gronk, but it seemed like he couldn’t match his speed or quickness either. Not ideal if you’re the Steelers.

Not to mention, the way the Steelers were choosing to play man coverage against Gronk did not provide Davis with much help. He was not undercutting Gronk and playing to safety help over the top, for instance. He was not part of a bracket. Instead, he often was playing to the outside of Gronk, with really no help to the inside of the field. The two potential inside help defenders in man-free weren’t really factors. The single-high safety was generally too deep, and the remaining defender, predominantly a linebacker, was playing close to the line of scrimmage to take away New England’s shallow crossers. It became clear over the course of the 2nd half that the Patriots could get an in-breaking route to Gronk vs man coverage almost any time they wanted it. And that’s exactly what they did on their final drive.

First, let’s set up the significance of this final drive. This was the most important defensive series of the season for the Steelers. They led by 5 with the #1 seed and the potential of avoiding a trip to Foxborough in January hanging in the balance. From a logic and common-sense perspective, the prevailing thought had to be, “DON’T LET THEIR BEST PLAYER BEAT US!” That best player was Rob Gronkowski. Giving him extra special attention in this situation SHOULD HAVE BEEN A REQUIREMENT. If the Patriots were going to drive the field for the go-ahead touchdown, the Steelers needed to make sure it was through their second or third-best options.

Of course, as you probably know by now, this was not how the final drive played out. On the first play, Brady’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and fluttered into the arms of Sean Davis. He dropped what would have been the game-ending interception. The coverage on this play was man-free. More interestingly, the Steelers used 2 defenders to cover the running back, James White, coming out of the backfield. This proves to us that the Steelers knew double-teaming an offensive player is legal under NFL rules. Surely, on the next play, they would choose to double-team Gronk…

On that second snap of the drive, however, the Steelers did not choose to double up on Gronk. They played 2-man (man coverage with 2 deep safeties), which can easily help create double teams. You can see the alignment at the snap, with Sean Davis covering Gronk in the slot.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The only problem here was that safety Mike Mitchell was playing so deep that he was not a factor in helping out on Gronkowski. With the other deep safety protecting overtop on the other side of the field, the massive tight end was effectively in 1-on-1 coverage with the outmatched Sean Davis.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Mitchell was almost 20 yards away from Gronk just as Brady started his motion.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

26 yards on an in-breaking route over the middle, and the Patriots were rolling.

The next play resulted in yet another 26-yard gain. Again, you can see Rob Gronkowski was aligned in the same location.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

This time, the Steelers brought a blitz from the slot and played Cover-3 behind it.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The call itself isn’t a bad one. Mixing in a blitz and changing up the coverage is a good idea in this situation. Treating Rob Gronkowski like a JAG (Just A Guy) is not. You can see above that Gronk ran freely off the line. He had no special attention paid to him as he sauntered downfield, unimpeded, past defenders in coverage.

You can tell extra attention was not being paid to him by the fact that the single-high deep safety was cheating to the opposite side of the field versus a 2×2 formation. Sean Davis was once again left on Gronk’s outside shoulder versus an in-breaking route with no help in the middle of the field.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The end zone view shows just how much space Gronk had by the time the ball got to him.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

In the NFL, that is WIDE-OPEN!

On the next play, the Steelers went back to man-free coverage. Once again, Sean Davis was left alone in the slot on Rob Gronkowski. No extra defender. Nothing to indicate that the Steelers were making Gronk a priority.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

As Gronk was breaking away from Davis over the middle of the field, the only defender that could possibly have helped, the deep safety, was tracking the crossing route moving in the opposite direction of Gronkowski.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Again, you can see that no special attention was given to Gronk. No help defenders. Just Sean Davis in 1-on-1 coverage with your chance at the #1 seed on the line. The result was a 17-yard gain for the Patriots and another 1st down.

The touchdown run by Dion Lewis on the next play seemed like a formality. Gronk being left in 1-on-1 coverage on the 2-point conversion, again versus Sean Davis, was just the icing on the cake.

There are some games where the Patriots completely out-scheme the opposing defense. In this game, the Steelers actually had some answers schematically. They did not, however, have an effective gameplan for specifically addressing Rob Gronkowski. Keep in mind, the 3 straight plays that went to Gronk on the final drive were not intricate route concepts. They were simple routes and an attempt to exploit a very advantageous matchup. It was clear that Davis needed some help. Give Tom Brady and the Patriots credit for continuing to exploit the mismatch as long as the Steelers were giving it to them. Fault the Steelers for failing to treat Gronk for what he is – the best pass-catching threat in the NFL.

The same theme that we have seen play out over the last 17 years repeated itself once again on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Give the Patriots an inch, and they’ll take that inch over and over and over, until you look up at the scoreboard and they somehow are beating you by multiple touchdowns. The Patriots didn’t win in blow-out fashion this time, but they scored enough to all but ensure that the road to the Super Bowl will once again go through Foxborough, MA.