More than at any other time throughout the regular season and postseason, the New England Patriots called upon their short, shifty wide receivers to make their crucial plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday up in Foxboro in the AFC Championship game. And more than at any other time over the course of this journey, it worked.
The trio of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola combined for 29 receptions for 310 yards and three touchdowns against the Steelers on Sunday, which certainly appeared to be something that Pittsburgh’s coaching staff and players were not prepared to face. I believe one player expected Edelman to be the focal point of the Patriots’ offensive attack, but when it proved to be Hogan, they struggled to adapt.
Hogan had the biggest game of his career, catching nine passes for an astounding 180 yards and two touchdowns, but Edelman also contributed another eight receptions for 118 yards and yet another touchdown. Amendola was more of a bit player, contributing just two receptions for 12 yards, though he had just been coming back from missing several weeks due to injury.
In recent years, including this season, teams usually counted upon the fact that they would have to devote their resources to defending the tight ends and the running backs in the passing game, but they really were not much of a factor for New England on Sunday.
Of course, a big part of why that was would be the fact that All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski has been on injured reserve for months. Gronkowski has been a Steeler-crusher throughout his career—though that could be said for pretty much every team that he has played against. That is what Hall of Fame-type players just do.
The backs and tight ends, however, combined for just 12 receptions during the game for 69 yards, including five receptions for 32 yards from Martellus Bennet, who himself had been ailing. Their pass-catching running backs combined for 16 yards on five receptions, with a trickle of further contributions here and there.
Not that this should have been completely blindsiding. The week prior against the Texans, Hogan caught four passes for 95 yards and Edelman had eight receptions for 137 yards; Amendola had not yet returned from injury.
You can certainly argue that the Steelers should have been much better prepared for what they ended up facing on Sunday, but there was also plenty of blame to go around in the field of execution as well, not just in terms of preparedness, scheme, etc. There was just a whole lot of not getting it done going on, and that’s why the Steelers are done for the 2016 season.