Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have absolutely owned the Steelers during their tenure in New England. On Sunday, it didn’t seem like much would change after the Patriots’ first possession. In fact, it was eerily similar to how last season’s Week 15 matchup in Pittsburgh started.
In both games, the drive was kept alive by a Steelers penalty on 3rd-and-1, only to be followed by a big play against a blown coverage on the very next snap. The play-action was even the same.
For a game that the Steelers clearly circle on their calendar every season, to be so ill-prepared on the first drive two straight years is…not what you want.
But, as we all know, this game would turn out different for Pittsburgh. Their defense settled down. How did they do it? They tried to win with coverage instead of blitz pressure. The Steelers played most of the game with dime personnel (6 defensive backs) and only blitzed a handful of times after that first drive.
There were two noticeable themes in Pittsburgh’s coverage. First, they mixed things up. Instead of just playing their predominant cover-3 zone, they mixed in a fair amount of 2-deep-safety coverages. This included cover-2, tampa-2, quarters, and 2-man coverage.
The 2-man enabled the Steelers to double Rob Gronkowski (which they did often) and either Julian Edelman or Josh Gordon depending on the formation.
Take this play below. Gronk was running an out-route. The Steelers matched up by putting safety Sean Davis on him (which they did often on Sunday) and then doubling him with safety Terrell Edmunds over the top.
You can see that Brady was looking for Gronk initially, but he was taken away by the double-team. That was all the time T.J. Watt needed to get to Brady for the sack.
That’s how you get pressure on Brady, by the way. Make him hold the ball (by doubling his favorite targets, disguising coverage, or disrupting routes at the line of scrimmage) and let the pass rush have time to go to work.
In addition to this sack, T.J. Watt had a great game and repeatedly gave right tackle Marcus Cannon fits. There were three consecutive third downs in the first half where Watt’s rush disrupted Brady and forced the Patriots to punt.
The other theme that stood out about Pittsburgh’s coverage was their disguise. They moved from their traditional cover-3 look pre-snap to those 2-deep safety coverages we mentioned earlier post-snap (We saw the Titans do something similar with success earlier this season).
The dime personnel enabled the Steelers to do this. Safeties are more athletic than linebackers. They can move from underneath areas to deep zones and back more easily. This means they can hold their disguise longer than if there were more linebackers on the field, which means a greater chance of causing the quarterback to hesitate.
And you know what? It worked. Brady did not look comfortable for most of the afternoon. Part of it was the rush that did enough to get to him. Part of it was the disguise. He didn’t trust what he was seeing.
On Brady’s interception, the Steelers rotated from their traditional cover-3 look (1 deep safety) to cover-2 (2 deep safeties).
The Patriots ran 4 vertical routes, which can be very difficult to defend in cover-3. The two-deep safety look takes those routes away, though.
You can see from the sky cam that Brady looked left, then right, then back left, then right again. Route concepts are not built for a quarterback to progress through his reads in this order.
When you see a quarterback look back and forth scanning the field against zone coverage, it means he’s beat. The coverage has won, there are no more progressions to work through, and it’s about trying to find an open receiver outside of the design of the play. Brady tried to do this and made an uncharacteristically awful decision.
Brady did not look comfortable on Sunday. Quite frankly, he hasn’t looked that comfortable all season. One of the traits that has separated Brady from other quarterbacks throughout his career has been his ability to move in the pocket to avoid the pass rush, ready to throw the entire time with his focus downfield. This season, we’ve seen him overreact to pressure at times, with his footwork breaking down more often when he moves.
Brady had several of those plays on Sunday. On the final drive of the game, he moved unnecessarily early a few times. Keep an eye on Gronk on the below play.
We won’t say that throw was wide open, but we’ve seen Brady take advantage of a window like that so many times throughout his career. He didn’t have the chance on this play, though, because he moved at the first sign of pressure. Below you can take another look from the end zone angle. Brady could have hung in there a bit longer.
The combination of Brady’s performance, the Steelers’ refreshing approach, and the Patriots’ uncharacteristically sloppy play (too many penalties), the offense wasn’t able to get anything consistent going. Gronk also looked very stiff in his movements. He still has the ability to make some plays due to his size, but teams have been able to mitigate his impact by getting him to stop and start more frequently.
Things don’t quite seem the same in New England this season. The Patriots won’t win at least 12 games for the first time since 2009. Never count out Brady and Belichick, though. This season is still a long way from being over.
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