Bill Belichick spent all last week talking about the Steelers’ consistency, noting they have had a similar defensive scheme for the last quarter-century.
Except the Blitzburg Steelers didn’t show up to Sunday’s game, a 27-16 road win for the Patriots. Instead, Mike Tomlin’s crew came armed with a game plan that was downright Belichickian. And it worked pretty well.
The Steelers have played a 3-4 defensive front for as long as anyone can remember. Except on Sunday, they played almost exclusively a four-man front. The Steelers also have been known to play a lot of Cover 3, a zone defense with three deep defenders. On Sunday, they were primarily a Cover 2 team, looking a lot like the old Tampa Bay defenses (Tomlin got his NFL start on the Buccaneers with Tony Dungy).
Not only did they take away the deep part of the field and clamp down on the Patriots’ receivers, but the Steelers also played a light front, practically begging the Patriots to run the ball and take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. The Steelers forced the Patriots to call 30 passes and 25 run plays.
“They played 2-high a lot more than we thought, so we ran it most of the game,” tight end Martellus Bennett said.
LeGarrette Blount had a huge game, rushing 24 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns. But Brady’s numbers were fairly pedestrian. He started the game 9 of 9 for 90 yards, then afterward went 10 of 17 for 132 yards.
The Steelers’ scheme slowed the Patriots, holding them to a season-low 55 offensive plays. And the Patriots really only hit four plays — the 36-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski, the 37-yarder to Gronk in the fourth quarter that set up Blount’s second touchdown, a 25-yard run by Blount, and the 19-yard screen pass touchdown for James White.
And in the most surprising move, the Steelers never once sent more than four pass rushers at Brady. They zone-blitzed four times, dropping a lineman into coverage and bringing a linebacker or defensive back after Brady, but were content to let Brady sit in the pocket and take away his weapons with heavy coverage.
It’s a game plan that should sound familiar to any Patriots fan who has been paying attention over the last, oh, 17 years.
Other observations after reviewing the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The Patriots won this game with their blocking, which was just outstanding in both the run and pass game. The Patriots primarily ran to the left, attacking Steelers right defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was questionable to play with an ankle injury. Of Blount’s 24 runs, 12 went left for 70 yards (5.8 average), including both of his touchdowns and his 25-yarder. Blount also ran well up the middle, averaging 5.4 yards on seven carries.
■ Nate Solder was excellent in the run game, working in tandem with Gronkowski and Bennett to create huge alleys for Blount. Julian Edelman also had several great downfield blocks, taking out two defenders on Blount’s 25-yard run . . .
. . . and also created the seal that allowed Blount to scamper into the end zone for his second touchdown.
Solder had one bad series to start the second half — allowing Jarvis Jones to beat him to the inside and ruin a passing play, then getting busted for holding on two straight plays — but otherwise had a phenomenal game.
■ On White’s 19-yard screen pass touchdown, David Andrews and Joe Thuney did a great job of getting out to the second level.
Thuney cut down a defender at the legs, and Andrews showed great athleticism in jumping over the pile, then clearing out safety Robert Golden. White followed his blockers well, then did the rest to get to the end zone.
■ The Patriots didn’t quite run as well to the right, just five times for 19 yards, but it was yet another quiet game for Marcus Cannon at right tackle, always a good sign for an offensive lineman. Shaq Mason struggled a bit in the run game, allowing a couple of stuffs on what could have been huge runs for Blount.
■ The Steelers did a great job in coverage in the first half, forcing Brady to scramble much more than he would like (though he did pick up a first down on all three of his scrambles). But the Steelers finally broke down in the third quarter on Gronkowski’s 36-yard touchdown. The Steelers appeared to be in Cover 2 man, with Gronk running deep down the seam and Danny Amendola running a deep corner route.
Rookie safety Sean Davis was in the right spot, but for some reason focused his attention on Amendola, and had his back turned to Gronkowski while the tight end streaked right past him for the touchdown.
■ And the Patriots did a nice job with combo routes on Gronkowski’s 37-yard gain, sending Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell deep to clear out the safeties, leaving the middle of the field wide open for Gronk.
■ What a horrible sequence at the end of the second quarter. Edelman dropped a catch-and-run on third down that could’ve gone for huge yardage — and the play was wiped out anyway by a holding penalty on Mason. Brandon Bolden made his mental error on the ensuing punt, giving the Steelers the ball at the 20 instead of the 6, and then the Steelers went down and kicked a field goal. What should have been a 17-7 or 21-7 halftime lead instead was only 14-10.
■ For the second straight week, Bennett played only about 50 percent of snaps (30 of 57), perhaps as part of the game plan, but more likely as he works his way through the ankle injury he suffered in the Browns game. Mitchell played more than Amendola (31 snaps to 19), and Amendola has yet to play more than 26 snaps in a game this season. He has only 13 catches on 16 targets and has been little more than a decoy. Thuney missed one snap against the Steelers, his first of the season. That leaves Andrews, the center, as the only player on either side of the ball to play every snap this season.
When the Steelers had the ball
■ We know that the Patriots barely laid a finger on Landry Jones, compiling a paltry three QB hits and zero sacks on 47 dropbacks. But I counted more Patriots blitzes than I expected. The Patriots sent five defenders nine times, plus three more zone blitzes. Results were mixed — the blitz produced Malcolm Butler’s end zone interception and Jones was only 3 of 9 for 49 yards on true blitzes. But he also found Darrius Heyward-Bey for 10 yards on third and 3, hit Le’Veon Bell on a screen pass for 22 yards, and hit Cobi Hamilton for 17 yards on third and 10. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley did a nice job with the screens to Bell at the end of the second quarter, timing them perfectly against the Patriots’ blitzes.
■ Conversely, the Patriots rushed just three defenders 23 times (including penalties), but that stat is a bit misleading, as most of them came in the Steelers’ final two drives in the fourth quarter when they were trailing by 11 points.
Heyward-Bey’s touchdown came against a three-man rush — the Patriots had three defenders locked on Antonio Brown, leaving Eric Rowe in single coverage on Heyward-Bey — and so did Hamilton’s 15-yard catch on third and 10. Late in the third quarter, the Patriots allowed two third-and-10 conversions on the same drive — one against a blitz, one against a three-man rush.
■ Patrick Chung deserves a helmet sticker for doing yeoman’s work. He was often used as the nickel cornerback, and had the difficult task of shadowing Bell for most of the game. He showed great play recognition and tackling skills to stop a crossing route short of the first down, and had a great pass breakup against Bell on the first play of the fourth quarter, a play that could’ve gone for a touchdown.
■ Butler was excellent shadowing Brown, despite the 51-yarder that he gave up to Brown in the second quarter and the 106 yards overall that he surrendered. Butler made a great play early in the fourth quarter — he got knocked to the ground by Heyward-Bey on a crossing route, but got back up and got back in position to tightly defend Brown on an incomplete pass on third down. Brown was not himself in the second half, catching two passes for 13 yards as he was clearly hobbled from taking a knee in the thigh.
■ The Patriots liberally mixed between zone and man coverage again, and did a nice job disguising their coverage.
In the third quarter they appeared to show man coverage, and the Steelers called a bunch of crossing routes in response.
But the Patriots dropped off into Cover 2 zone, the crossing routes went nowhere, Jones didn’t see the one open receiver, and he threw incomplete for a failed third down.
■ Rowe replaced Logan Ryan as the No. 2 cornerback, playing all 73 snaps compared with just 31 for Ryan. It’s unclear if this was just a one-game anomaly or sign of things to come, but Rowe has good height at 6 feet 1 inches and played fairly well despite giving up the touchdown to Hewyard-Bey and a couple of other catches. Ryan is a better tackler in the run game, however. Bell carried Rowe on his back for 5 yards on one run.
■ Alan Branch continues to be a force in the run game and has quietly had an excellent season stuffing the run in the middle of the defense. Chris Long made an excellent play to fight off his blocker, maintain the edge, and force Bell out of bounds.
■ The Steelers bailed the Patriots out of both of their turnovers. The Steelers turned Chris Hogan’s fumble into an interception in the end zone, and Edelman’s fumbled punt into a missed 54-yard field goal. Why Tomlin went for the long kick instead of going for it on fourth and 2 is beyond me.
■ We won’t go into all of the special teams gaffes since we detailed them pretty thoroughly following the game. Stephen Gostkowski’s missed PAT was foretold earlier when his first extra point tailed badly to the right, though it still went through. His last PAT was right down the middle, which must have been a huge relief.