The Pittsburgh Steelers defense suffered from no shortage of issues against a deadly Patriots offensive unit playing at home on Sunday in the AFC Championship game. But undoubtedly one of the biggest issues that they had was their inability to limit key plays due to missed tackles, miscommunications, or poor reads.
I will not be focusing on coverage issues here that were the culprit for giving up big plays. I’m more interested at the moment in exploring where things went wrong once the ball-carrier was already advancing. All of the examples with one notable exception came through the passing game.
The issues crept up early and often during the Steelers’ biggest defensive letdown of the season short of the Cowboys game that sparked their second-half turnaround. Tom Brady and Julian Edelman got the ball rolling on just the second play of the game.
The Patriots were in position at the 37 with first and 10 when Brady connected with Edelman over the middle. The slot receiver turned upfield before catching Artie Burns cheating to the middle, catching him flat-footed as he raced to the sideline. The big gain ended 41 yards from the line of scrimmage and also included a missed tackle by Lawrence Timmons.
The defense was riddled with errors during New England’s second drive of the third quarter. The problems started on the third play of the drive when Timmons was unable to catch up to Edelman on a short pass on third and seven, instead picking up 17 rather than six.
Brady found Chris Hogan for 39 yards three plays later on a near-double-explosive play that was the beneficiary of Ross Cockrell’s late reaction and recovery to the pass finding the wide receiver on a deep crossing route. That alone allowed the receiver to advance about an extra 20 yards from where he could have been tackled.
It was just one play later when the defense failed collectively to stop LeGarrette Blount in his best impersonation of the Juggernaut from the X-Men. He easily evaded an arm-tackle attempt from William Gay before trucking Mike Mitchell and carrying a pile of literally five defenders and extra nine yards with initially little help from his own teammates.
The Patriots’ ability to score quickly on the next play did not mark the cessation of Pittsburgh’s defensive letdowns. The Steelers’ offense quickly turned the ball over in one play and New England took advantage on the following snap. Edelman evaded a tackle attempt by Sean Davis with a stiff-arm move that turned a five-yard gain into an 18-yarder.
There were a lot of issues at which to point one’s finger, as tends to be the case when your opponent scores 36 points. The repeated inability to limit gains to their minimum was one of the biggest issues that spanned virtually the entire length of the game.