To say that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was poorly prepared to defend the New England Patriots offensive passing attack in Sunday’s AFC Championship is huge understatement. Regardless of what the Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler called, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had an answer for it on his way to completing 32 of his 42 total passing attempts for 384 yards and three touchdowns.
While I have yet to chart what the Patriots used personnel wise on offense during Sunday’s shellacking of the Steelers defense, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com already has and he made quite an interesting discover.
After only using their four-wide receiver package a total of 12 times all season, the Patriots used it 13 times during the first half of Sunday’s game against the Steelers defense, that primarily countered with different variations of zone coverages.
“We knew we wanted to do a few things out of some different groupings that we felt like could help us move the ball, make first downs and score points, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I think they went out there and did some things, were able to convert on a few third downs and help us move the ball.”
Yes, they did, Josh, yes, they did.
On Monday, Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan, who caught 9 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s game, said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio that the New England offense prepared all week for the Steelers to play quite a bit of zone coverages and that now obviously included utilizing four-wide receiver personnel groupings.
The Steelers didn’t pull inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Shazier off the field for any plays against the Patriots and being as cornerback William Gay played 42 of a possible 74 defensive plays, you can easily figure out how much base and sub package defense Pittsburgh used throughout Sunday’s game.
While Butler’s decision to play a lot of zone coverage against the Patriots was certainly a poor one, it wasn’t helped by the lack of pressure the Steelers front seven provided. When the Steelers defense rushed four or more players, it was either picked up successfully, or Brady got the football out of his hand quickly. In fact, we have Brady’s average snap to throw time on Sunday as being 2.53 seconds which was slightly lower than is average during the regular season.
When Brady did hold the football 3.18 seconds or longer, which I believe happened on 11 total dropbacks, the Steelers defense still failed miserably when it came to pressuring him.
Even when the Steelers only rushed three players, which happened on nearly half of Brady’s dropbacks, the Patriots quarterback had no issues in finding wide-open wide receivers.
Moving forward, Butler, assuming he is retained, needs to make sure to prepare his defense better for the unexpected and especially when the Steelers play the Patriots. Butler, and head coach Mike Tomlin for that matter, need to start implementing more man-on-man press coverage moving forward in addition to figuring out a way to start knocking opposing quarterbacks off their marks more consistently and especially against Brady, who will pick any kind of defense apart if not pressured.
On Sunday in Foxborough, McDaniels easily out-coached Butler and unfortunately Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley failed to return the favor to Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.