Well, not too many teams beat Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at home and sadly the Pittsburgh Steelers just found out how that group gained such a reputation. With a final score of 36-17, the Steelers were out of the race by the 3rd quarter. Here are my gut reactions on the AFC Championship game.
The game-plan came off the rails quickly when running back Le’Veon Bell went out with an injured groin. I don’t know if it was the Patriots’ pride or the offensive line’s loss of motivation but I haven’t seen that unit get dominated at the point of attack since some point in the Steelers four-game losing streak. The running game was one of the most important factors going into this championship game, not necessarily because of the yardage, and the feeling of dominating the opposing team, but because it was the weapon that would keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off the field.
How many games do Steelers fans have to suffer through against the Patriots offense before changes are made? It’s obvious that the Patriots love throwing against the Steelers soft zones, anyone who has watched any game tape on Patriots vs. Steelers games knows that the Patriots brain-trust and Brady will take those soft zone coverages all day, in fact, they flourish against them. Dick LeBeau, Keith Butler, single gap defensive line, double gap defensive line, it’s all ineffective against the Patriots offensive scheme. If the defense can get pressure with four pass rushers and play aggressive man coverage against the Patriots receivers, they might have a chance. If they’re playing zone defense, the Patriots have the advantage, simple as that. Brady’s numbers in his last six games against the Steelers defensive scheme? 19 touchdowns passes and 0 interceptions.
At halftime, the Steelers were down 17-9, a one possession game. But it felt like the Steelers were already dead in the water because the offense left five points on the field. Sure, you can miss an extra point when your offense has scored 33 points before the end of the 3rd quarter like Patriots’ Kicker Stephen Gostkowski did. But you can’t miss that extra point when your team is trying to gain momentum in a hostile environment like Foxborough and you’re trying to match the Patriots offense score for score like Chris Boswell did. I know it was only a point but it was the momentum swing that never happened.
A more egregious situation was getting stuffed at the one foot line with four plays to score. The lack of red zone scoring and the poor play calling should be credited to Todd Haley. They hadn’t run the ball well all night, Maurkice Pouncey could not block Alan Branch one on one so why would they run the ball two times in a row? Call me crazy but the Kansas City Chiefs knew how to get the ball in the end zone with less talent on the field. Even when the AFC Championship game was out of reach Haley was still calling horrible red zone plays. In the 3rd quarter with the score 33-9 the Steelers were in a “must go for it” on fourth down from the Patriots two-yard line, so what does Haley call? A 50/50 jump ball to Cobi Hamilton on a corner route. It’s the AFC Championship game, 50/50 means there’s only a 50% chance of it being completed, surely there are plays that have a higher success rate of gaining two yards than that in the play book, but for whatever reason they don’t get called, that needs to be addressed in the offseason.
Which leads me to my next point, it’s embarrassing how out-coached the Steelers were tonight. The defensive secondary didn’t know who on earth they were covering and it showed. The Patriots receivers were running free all over the field, the Steelers secondary looked confused and disoriented on most pass plays and it led to the Steelers looking foolish at times.
I knew that Antonio Brown would be limited in this game by one of the better secondaries in the league, but it was worse than expected because of Bell’s early exit. They always say “Belichick defenses takes away your favorite weapon,” and I was hoping they would struggle deciding who that was, Bell or Brown, but sadly Bell’s injury meant their defense didn’t have to decide, and one of the best receivers in the game was limited to only 77 yards on nine targets.
I hope Eli Rogers was taking notes tonight, he has a front row seat to “how to be an elite slot receiver 101” taught by the Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelmen who put on an absolute clinic on how to get open against zone defenses tonight. If Rogers continues to develop, can hold on to the football, and the Steelers are lucky, he’ll blossom into a receiver that resembles Edelman, but he’s not there yet.
Through all the horrible play the one player that was steadfast was Ben Roethlisberger. Sure, he had one interception, but he was trying to force the ball downfield with the game out of reach. I know the Steelers took their shots down-field and they mostly didn’t pan out, but those mistakes were on the Steelers receivers. They were either dropping well placed passes or not expecting the ball at all, but still, go routes were one of the few plays where the Patriots’ scheme didn’t matter because the speed of the receivers were usually able to beat the coverage (if they didn’t get safety help). But forcing the ball down field did lead to Ben’s interception so in the end, it was a catch-22. With Bell out, the offense went back to being pass happy and while the receivers that dressed today had the speed to get open on deep routes, they weren’t ready to make the game breaking plays when called upon for whatever reason. Honestly, the Patriots showed, that going into this game, the Steelers didn’t have an active receiver that could dominate the game beyond Brown. A harsh truth for a receiving corps that’s supposed to be deep and plush with talent.
It was a fun year, a tough loss to watch, but the Steelers have some building blocks to work with for next season.
What are your gut reactions?