Self-Inflicted Wounds Prevent Chiefs Offense from Putting Away Titans

The Chiefs were having no trouble with anything the Titans Defense threw their way in the first half on Saturday. Maybe the biggest reason for that was Alex Smith. Smith consistently made the right reads and the right throws to beat the coverage. He hung in the pocket, calmly scanned the field, moved defenders, and made sharp throws at the intermediate levels, which is a requirement in the playoffs. Smith led the Chiefs to a 21-3 lead at the half, and the game looked like it would get out of hand quickly. Unfortunately for Kansas City, they did not score again. So what happened? Was it the absence of Travis Kelce in the 2nd half? Was it Kareem Hunt not getting enough touches? Was it questionable play-calling? Perhaps it was a little bit of everything.

The Chiefs were still able to move the ball through the air without their play-making tight end, as evidenced by their touchdown drive before the end of the half after Kelce went down with a concussion. It’s not like they didn’t miss their injured tight end, though. A talent like Kelce gives the Chiefs options and puts significant strain on a defense, as shown on the play below. Here, Kelce was aligned to the left with safety Kevin Byard ready to take him 1-on-1. This would be man-to-man coverage, and Byard on Kelce was Tennessee’s preferred matchup.

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The Chiefs sent tight end Demetrius Harris in motion from the other side of the formation. He would end up outside of Kelce.

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The Titans reacted to this by bumping Byard outside to take Harris.

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With two tight ends to the same side of the field, Tennessee likely wanted to have Byard, a safety, take the outside tight end, and have the inside defender, a linebacker, take the inside tight end. This left Kelce in 1-on-1 coverage versus linebacker Avery Williamson.

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There is more than a good chance that the Titans have a tendency to react to this formation in exactly this fashion, and Andy Reid likely picked up on it (something the Patriots will also likely be very aware of next week – hello Gronk).

The mismatch in Kansas City’s favor is evident here.

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The result was an easy touchdown.

Kelce’s absence in the 2nd half meant that Andy Reid had fewer ways to attack Dick LeBeau and the Titans’ defense. It also meant that the Titans had fewer dynamic weapons and mismatches to worry about. Any 2 tight-end sets or play designs, as shown above, would not yield such a distinct advantage for Kansas City.

Additionally, Tennessee was able to devote more attention to Tyreek Hill. They provided safety help to his side in multiple key moments throughout the 2nd half, as shown below. This was the first play of the 2nd half.

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This was a 3rd-and-13 in the 3rd quarter.

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This was a 3rd-and-9 on the Chiefs’ final drive of the game.

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This was their next play – 4th and 9.

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You can see that no matter where Hill aligned, Tennessee was ready to take him out of the play.

Even with Kelce sidelined and Hill taken away by the defense, the biggest reason for Kanas City’s offensive ineptitude in the 2nd half was probably their inability to convert when they had the opportunity.

On their first drive of the 2nd half, after Tennessee cut the lead to 21-10, the Chiefs faced a 3rd-and-1. Andy Reid, for some reason, dialed up a speed-option play out of a run-heavy formation. The Titans were all over it. Still, the Chiefs immediately got the ball back at Tennessee’s 28-yard line after a muffed punt on the next play. Kareem hunt lost a yard on 1st down, Tyreek Hill lost 2 on a swing pass, and Alex Smith decided to scramble immediately on 3rd-and-13 when he had a receiver open in the middle of the field. Had Smith stayed in pocket and made this throw, it at least would have set up an easier field goal try, if not converted the 3rd down. The result was a missed 48-yard field goal.

The next time the Chiefs had the ball, their lead was down to 21-16. KC faced a 3rd-and-2 near midfield. Alex Smith hit Orson Charles with a perfect pass on a quick slant that should have been a first down. Instead, Charles dropped the pass, and the Chiefs punted the ball away. Yes, Travis Kelce likely makes that play.

On KC’s final drive, the Chiefs faced a 4th-and-9. This was the game and Kansas City’s season. This was where the coach pulls out his best possible play, perhaps the one he keeps in his back pocket for dire situations. And maybe that’s exactly how Andy Reid viewed his play-call, one that sent 3 receivers on verticals versus 2-man coverage, with two additional receivers sitting in the flats. Not one player was anywhere near the first down marker… Not exactly a high-percentage possibility for a conversion on your biggest play of the season.

Many have argued that Andy Reid didn’t give Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s 2017 rushing leader, enough carries to put the game away. He only ran the ball 5 times in the 2nd half despite coming out of the locker room with an 18-point lead! At first glance, this stat is somewhat eye opening. Upon further inspection, though, it isn’t quite so simple. Hunt wasn’t exactly tearing up the Titans defense. In fact, his 5 carries in the 2nd half gained just 17 yards. Not to mention, the Chiefs were still able to move the ball through the air, even with Kelce out of the game. Had they converted on any of their 3rd-down misses, they likely would have given Kareem Hunt more carries.

In reality, Hunt’s 2nd-half workload wasn’t such a glaring mistake. After all, the Chiefs only ran 11 offensive plays with the lead in the 2nd half. They never actually ran an offensive play with an 18-point lead. In fact, they touched the ball for the first time in the 2nd half with 6:30 remaining in the 3rd quarter and the score 21-10. We’re not sure how good of a strategy it is to try and milk the clock up by just 11 points, with 21-and-a-half minutes to play, and the NFL’s 4th ranked rushing defense lined up against you.

No, Kansas City’s offensive failures resulted from their inability to convert in the pivotal moments of the 2nd half. Their self-inflicted wounds came back to bite them. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they couldn’t overcome their mistakes, and they’ll once again have to go back to the drawing board this offseason.

Posted in AFC South, AFC West, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in AFC East, AFC North, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steelers Offense Rolls Past Ravens

On Sunday night, the Steelers clinched the AFC North with another last-minute classic. Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 yards on 3 separate occasions. Antonio Brown had 213 yards receiving and was all but uncoverable. Le’Veon Bell added 3 touchdowns. The Steelers are an offensive juggernaut and nearly unstoppable with the Killer B’s healthy and on the field at the same time. Despite the 39 points, though, Pittsburgh did have a bit of a rollercoaster performance on offense. In those ups and downs, we learned plenty about how they respond to various defensive approaches.

In the first half, the Steelers offense completely controlled the game. They scored on all 4 of their possessions (2 touchdowns and 2 field goals). Roethlisberger was 19-26 (2 incompletions were spikes), for 220 yards and a touchdown. Yes, the weapons at Ben’s disposal helped enable that performance. The time he had to scan the field and deliver the ball was a more significant factor, though. The Ravens were barely able to get any pressure on Roethlisberger, their 2 coverage sacks not-withstanding. Whether Baltimore played man or zone, Ben had time to decipher the coverage and make the correct throw – and he made the correct throw almost every time.

Something happened on the way to halftime, though. The Ravens realized they HAD to get to Roethlisberger. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees started dialing up the pressure. This slowed down the Steelers offense at the end of the first half. It completely thwarted them in the 3rd quarter, when Pees unloaded what seemed like every blitz he had in his playbook. Defenders came from far away and unlikely places – places the O-line and Roethlisberger didn’t recognize or account for until it was too late. The coverage behind those blitzes was heavily disguised as well. The play below illustrates both of these concepts.

See that guy with the circle around him? That’s safety Tony Jefferson. He will be the free rusher influencing this play. This is his alignment a few moments before the snap. He is initially more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, out of the protection’s concern, before starting to creep up late in Roethlisberger’s cadence.

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From the end-zone angle, you can see how the Steelers accounted for the Ravens pass rush. 5 offensive linemen to block 4 down linemen and the middle linebacker, and a running back to pick up the 6th potential rusher. Tony Jefferson was Roethlisberger’s responsibility if he blitzed.

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At the snap, the Ravens dropped two of those potential rushers out, and ended up blitzing 5.

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Due to Baltimore’s initial alignment and Pittsburgh’s protection rules, blitzing safety Tony Jefferson had a free path to Roethlisberger.

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Roethlisberger saw Jefferson blitz and wanted to get rid of the ball quickly to his tight end, Jesse James. He didn’t see linebacker C.J. Mosley, initially aligned in a pass rushing position over the center, dropping out underneath James’s route.

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Going back to the sideline view, you can see that Roethlisberger ended up making an off-balanced pass despite having room to step into the throw.

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This is what intricate blitz pressure can do. Roethlisberger rushed the throw and didn’t see Mosley dropping underneath James’s route. The result was an incompletion on 3rd down, and almost a big mistake by Roethlisberger.

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None of this led to disaster for the Steelers, necessarily. But they were stopped in their tracks on their first 3 possessions of the 3rd quarter. This enabled Baltimore to catch up and eventually take a double-digit lead.

So how did the Steelers offense still finish with 39 points? First, they started hitting big plays vs the blitz. Protection started becoming more familiar with Baltimore’s blitzes. Le’Veon Bell did a nice job on several occasions of not being fooled by the Ravens’ blitz schemes and correctly picking up the the pass rusher he was responsible for. Roethlisberger became firmer in the pocket with the confidence that he would be protected. On one particular play, right guard David DeCastro came off his man and picked up a free rusher, giving Big Ben enough time to hit Antonio Brown for a 60-yard gain.

Perhaps the Ravens were somewhat a victim of circumstances as well. The Ravens took a 9-point lead with under 7 minutes to go in the game. For just the blink of an eye, they relaxed. They aligned in coverages meant to prevent the big play. While Baltimore still disguised their coverages, they backed off on the blitzing. The Steelers marched 68 yards in 3 minutes and 15 seconds to pull within 2.

On their final drive, Baltimore started dialing up the pressure once again. The Steelers struggled against the blitz on the first two plays of the drive, but then Ben hit tight end Jesse James for 16 yards on 3rd-and-13. Le’Veon Bell again did a nice job of recognizing where the free rusher was coming from on this play. This thwarted the pressure before it had a chance to impact Roethlisberger.

However, the play of the game came three snaps later. With 1 minute and 8 seconds remaining, the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-4 from their own 36. At the snap, the Ravens were once again showing pressure. On the bottom of the screen, you can see that cornerback Brandon Carr was matched up on Antonio Brown.

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Based on the fact that this was such a pivotal situation, and because the Ravens had 2 defenders accounting for Antonio Brown on every prior play on this drive, Roethlisberger had to be thinking Baltimore would double-up on Brown again. He was wrong. The Ravens ended up playing 2-man. That’s man coverage with 2 safeties helping out over the top. You can see below the five 1-on-1 matchups, with two deep safeties. Shockingly, the safeties were shading to the side of the field away from Brown, leaving him in a pure 1-on-1 situation.

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Mismatch. In all fairness, Roethlisberger did look down the middle of the field where he had Martavis Bryant on a safety, which is also an advantageous matchup for the Steelers.

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Ben’s eyes and the mismatch could have both been good reasons for the safety to Brown’s side shading towards the middle of the field. But this is Antonio Brown we’re talking about here! The result was a very advantageous matchup for Pittsburgh, and lots of room to run for Brown.

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This play represented the 3rd time in the game that Roethlisberger hit Brown down the sideline on a go-route vs 1-on-1 coverage. Obviously, we don’t know if this particular play involved a miscommunication, was due to a lack of awareness, or was just a bad call by Dean Pees. Either way, it is shocking that Brown found himself in that situation with so much on the line.

Sunday night’s game was illustrative of how good the Steelers offense is. Baltimore was able to have spurts throughout the game where they successfully smothered the game’s best receiver, shut down Pittsburgh’s passing attack, and halted their running game in its tracks. Yet with just a sliver of opportunity, the Steelers made a very good Ravens defense pay dearly multiple times. Pittsburgh’s defense may be a bit of a question mark right now, but their offense is more than capable of powering them through the AFC.

Posted in AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment