Bill Belichick’s strategy is not a complex one, in fact it is a rather obvious one when you really think about it. The mastermind behind the New England Patriots preaches on taking away the opposition’s biggest strength while hitting the opposition at their biggest vulnerability. It is a known belief that Belichick is going to find a way to eliminate the opposition’s best player, many former players can back up this philosophy.
Former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who played for the Patriots from 2005-2006, put it best, stating “The first thing he would talk about at the start of each week was the opponent and what they did best. He was very specific. This wasn’t, “We can’t turn the ball over” coach-speak. It was, “If we take away Jimmy Smith on third downs they can’t beat us” prior to a playoff game against the Jags in the 2005 season. He would harp on it all week and the game plan would be designed to accomplish that exact objective.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers have their own Jimmy Smith, his name is Antonio Brown. Belichick is no stranger to Brown, he has shut down Brown before and while at times it has left opportunities for other receivers, the Patriots emerged with the only statistic that matters – a victory.
With another chess match between Belichick and the Steelers approaching, here is what to expect the Patriots to do to Brown, why it is more important than ever before and what the Steelers can do to counter it.
The Patriots played Brown during last season’s meeting just as anyone would expect them to. A lot of bracket coverage on the Steelers’ wide receiver.
Bracket coverage is essentially double coverage. The corner, Malcolm Butler in this case is playing on Brown’s hip, responsible for anything underneath. The safety brackets him over the top. Essentially, there is no where for Brown to go and most importantly no way for Ben Roethlisberger to get the football to his biggest play-maker. If the Patriots are going to be defeated, they are not going to make it easy, forcing you to beat them with your secondary pieces rather than your best piece.
Now if the Patriots are so preoccupied with taking away Brown, putting two defenders in coverage on him, that means one less defender in coverage somewhere else. When the Patriots went to Cover 1 during last season’s match-up, the safety frequently shaded over to #84’s side of the field. At this point it is a battle of numbers and percentages. On the right side, the Steelers have three wide receivers and the Patriots have four guys in coverage. Advantage New England. Though, on the other side, the Steelers have two receivers and the Patriots have two defenders in man to man. Advantage Steelers. With so much being done to take away Brown, opportunities started to open up for other wide receivers. Despite Martavis Bryant dropping the football, the move is a good counter to the Patriots’ attack.
The Patriots are in Cover 1 and cheat again as the safety shades over to Brown’s side. Roethlisberger goes for the deep shot this time and though him and Bryant cannot connect again, the opportunity was there for the taking.
Here is where things get complicated. For the 2018 Steelers, taking away their biggest strength also exposes their biggest weakness. The Patriots took a risk doubling Brown last season, as they would still have to deal with Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Le’Veon Bell.
This year’s Steelers are not as equipped. They don’t have Bell, in fact they might not even have his replacement James Conner, who will not be 100% even if he does suit up. They don’t have the deep threat in Bryant to stretch the field and make the Patriots pay for cheating to Brown’s side. Thankfully, the Steelers still do have Smith-Schuster, who had a lot of success in last year’s match-up.
Whether the Patriots deem Brown or Smith-Schuster the Steelers’ biggest weapon is irrelevant, what matters more is that the Steelers are going to need a third guy to step up. Whether it is James Washington, Ryan Switzer or even Vance McDonald, someone is going to have to step up because the opportunities are going to be there for the taking.
The Patriots took away the Steelers’ best weapon last season but sometimes it is not the power of the weapon that matters but the number of weapons instead. The 2017 Steelers had too many weapons, Brown exited the game and the team still almost won. With half the weapons of their 2017 offense, the Steelers are going to have to find a way to make more out of less.