Breaking news: a lot of things went wrong for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense on Sunday against the Patriots in their embarrassing loss in the AFC Championship game. They missed tackles. They played in soft coverages. They couldn’t get after the passer. But perhaps the most frustrating issue of all was their frequent plain-and-simple lapses in coverage.
There was unfortunately any number of examples of the Steelers making mistakes in coverage to choose from. Consider this session a sampling of the various things that went wrong. And as always, take the specific nature of each fault with a grain of salt, as the specific assignment is not always known or obvious. But it is obvious enough to see when mistakes are made.
The first play we’ll look at takes place in the latter stages of the first quarter. The Patriots lined up in a run look with a fullback in the backfield and two wide receivers split to the left before one motioned to the other side of the field.
Artie Burns was in coverage on Chris Hogan on the left side playing off the ball. Then Tom Brady called an audible and the running back and fullback each flanked to either direction for a five-wide look, and the defense struggled to respond. Burns moved outside to cover LeGarrette Blount and James Harrison came out of his stance to line up over Hogan. Harrison then looked like he wanted to shift his coverage over to Blount, assuming Burns would kick inside to cover Hogan. That did not work out.
That would not be the last time on that drive that the Steelers would let Hogan go. The next time ended in an easy touchdown after the blitz failed to get home. The Patriots showed a four-receiver set with three out to the right, Hogan toward the sideline. Their zone dropping left only Ross Cockrell to cover the two outside receivers as Robert Golden tried to pick up the slot receiver coming over the middle. Cockrell was forced to release Hogan into the end zone hoping that the deep safety would pick him up.
The Patriots split three receivers out to the left approaching midfield midway through the second quarter. The three defensive backs in the area—two of them rookies—could not coordinate on their assignments and left Hogan open in the flat.
The following play was a real dagger that showed a proper lack of planning. The Patriots attempted a flea-flicker earlier in the year. The Steelers should have been prepared to see it. Mike Mitchell bit hard on the run anyway despite the fact that the defense was handling the ground game. Hogan had himself another big play as a result.
Brady got the ball out to James Develin in the second half after he motioned the fullback out wide. The play bears resemblance to the first one as Burns and Harrison failed to get coordinated. Burns thought that Harrison was dropping to take the fullback, which resulted in him being left open for a nice little gain.
Many wondered during and after the game how the Steelers could allow a player like Chris Hogan to beat them so badly. The real answer is that they allowed them to beat themselves. You might notice that most of these mistakes involved rookies or injury substitutions. Brady picked them out and struck.