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Steelers’ defensive game plan was atrocious

The Patriots’ Chris Hogan was often wide open on his nine receptions against the Steelers in the AFC title game.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

You disappointed me, Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers. You let me down.

Here I thought you had a real defense and a real coaching staff, ready to match wits with Bill Belichick and the Patriots with a unique game plan. You did it back in Week 7, when you switched to a Cover 2 scheme and held Tom Brady to 222 passing yards and slowed down Rob Gronkowski for much of the day.

Instead, you gave us the same old sorry Steelers defense that Brady has ripped apart his entire career. You made some baffling personnel decisions, and didn’t have your team prepared in a 36-17 loss on the biggest stage of the season.


Let’s start with the most head-scratching decision — the usage of Bud Dupree and James Harrison. They are your two best pass rushers, and the Texans showed you in the divisional round with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus that the Patriots are susceptible to inside pressure.

Yet the Steelers didn’t bring either player up the middle on a twist or inside blitz. In fact, you didn’t use either player nearly enough as a pass rusher. On Brady’s 44 real drop-backs (excluding a clock spike), Harrison and Dupree each dropped into coverage 15 times. Not only were you not attacking Brady with your best rushers, but neither player is exactly proficient in pass coverage or playing in space.

A couple of times you had Dupree lined up over center, but you dropped him into coverage.

Brady took advantage of this schematic flaw in the first quarter, audibling out of a run play . . .

. . . and into a spread formation . . .

. . . then sending Chris Hogan down the left seam for an easy 26-yard catch while flying past Harrison.


Brady also had all day to find his receivers, like on Hogan’s 16-yard touchdown, when Brady scanned the field for 4.5 seconds before unleashing his throw.

Dupree and Harrison were both in pass coverage on the play.

Next, let’s talk about preparation. The Patriots exploited massive holes in the Steelers’ zones, and Pittsburgh never adjusted. The Steelers also had no answer for the Patriots’ up-tempo attack.

Never have we seen so many wide-open receivers running down the field in a playoff game.

All three touchdown throws by Brady were uncontested to wide-open receivers, and the Steelers had breakdowns on several other throws — Hogan wide open at the sticks for a 22-yard gain while two zone defenders covered Julian Edelman; a 12-yarder to Edelman on third and 10 in which Brady had his choice of three receivers; Hogan running wide open over the middle of the field, but Brady throwing too far behind him.

And the Steelers acted like they’ve never seen a flea-flicker before. In fact, veteran safety Mike Mitchell said the Steelers hadn’t seen it on film from the Patriots — which is incredible, because the Patriots ran a flea-flicker against the Ravens on Dec. 12, two weeks before the Ravens faced the Steelers.

Let’s call this what it was — arguably the worst defensive performance against the Patriots all season.

Other observations after rewatching the tape:

When the Patriots had the ball

■  Watching the game, it felt like Brady ripped apart the Steelers across the middle. And he did. But he did his most damage throwing to his left, and, frankly, couldn’t be stopped no matter which direction he threw.


His stats: 13 of 17 for 173 yards and a touchdown to the left, 8 of 12 for 98 yards over the middle, and 11 of 13 for 113 yards and two touchdowns to his right. The first touchdown to Hogan was a mistake by the free safety, who stood in the middle of the field and never bothered to cover Hogan standing 5 yards away. Edelman’s touchdown was a result of him shaking free of William Gay with a hard cut-back on the goal line. And on the flea-flicker TD, Brady easily could have thrown the ball to Mitchell instead of Hogan.

■  The Steelers sent only four true blitzes at Brady, plus four zone blitzes. They sent only three pass rushers 19 times, with Brady completing 11 of 19 for 130 yards and a sack. Brady converted 2 of 3 first downs against a three-man rush, and had some big gains with the Steelers in eight-man coverage – a 41-yarder to Edelman and a 26-yarder to Hogan.

But Brady was even better against the blitz. When the Steelers sent a four-man zone blitz, Brady was 4 of 4 for 47 yards and his first TD to Hogan. Against a five-man blitz, Brady was 4 of 4 for 79 yards, including a 39-yarder to Hogan and a 17-yarder to Edelman on third and 7.

■  The Patriots used up-tempo on their first drive and scored a field goal. They slowed it down and brought in the fullback for the second drive, and went three-and-out. They went back to the up-tempo on the third and fourth drives, and went 80 and 82 yards for touchdowns. That’s called a “trend.”


■  Brady really picked on Gay, the veteran cornerback. Gay had no chance of staying with Edelman in the red zone for his touchdown, and got burned badly by Hogan for a 39-yarder. Gay was giving upwards of 10 yards of cushion at the line of scrimmage, and just couldn’t keep up. And as they did in Week 7, the Patriots were able to get Edelman matched up against linebacker Lawrence Timmons 1-on-1 over the middle. Guess who won that matchup? Edelman for 17 yards.

■  It’s shocking that the Steelers didn’t find more creative ways to use Harrison to get after the passer, because he actually had a nice game. We had him down for three pressures — two against Marcus Cannon, one against Nate Solder — and two run stuffs. Harrison has an incredible knack for getting off his block and getting to the football.

■  The Patriots’ offensive line excelled in pass protection, and the interior unit of David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Shaq Mason deserve credit for handling the inside stunts better and having a much-improved performance from the Texans game. Thuney was hit early in the game for a sack by Javon Hargrave, but otherwise held his own.

■  The running backs chipped in well in pass protection.


James White absolutely crushed Timmons on Hogan’s first touchdown . . .

. . . and LeGarrette Blount had a great blitz pickup to give Brady time to find Hogan over the middle for 24 yards.

■  But the offensive line definitely struggled in the run game, allowing 10 stuffs on just 23 runs. Some of it was a result of the unblocked defender making a play, but Hargrave (a nice young player) gave Andrews and Thuney some problems, Stephon Tuitt tossed Cam Fleming and Martellus Bennett aside for one stuff, and Harrison chucked Bennett aside for another stuff. Timmons had two run stuffs, but also whiffed on two big plays — Edelman’s catches for 41 and 17 yards.

When the Steelers had the ball

■  The Patriots made Ben Roethlisberger earn every inch of the field. Roethlisberger completed 13 straight passes in the first and second quarters, but for just 104 yards (8.0 average) with a long of 16. Interestingly, Roethlisberger was 10-for-13 passing against the Patriots’ three-man rush, including a 30-yarder to Sammie Coates. But when the Patriots sent five pass rushers, Roethlisberger was 2 of 7 for 24 yards.

■  The Patriots tackle really well, which is why they have the No. 1 scoring defense despite not having a great pass rush. Logan Ryan had an exceptional tackling day, including one shoestring stop on DeAngelo Williams to prevent a potentially huge run.

And the Patriots limited Antonio Brown to just 30 yards after the catch on his seven receptions. Playing a majority of zone defense, with two deep safeties to prevent the big throws, played a big role in the Steelers’ low YAC numbers, as well.

■  Ryan had a little bit of trouble sticking with Eli Rogers on crossers and pick plays, but otherwise had a phenomenal game. He had a great pass breakup on Rogers over the middle, and had tight coverage on the fade pass to Cobi Hamilton on fourth down in the end zone.

■  But Eric Rowe was targeted early and often by Roethlisberger, especially when the Steelers got into scoring range. Rowe allowed only three catches on nine targets, but benefitted from two bad drops (one by Hamilton in the end zone). Rowe allowed both 30-yard completions, plus a touchdown to Hamilton. He did come away with an interception on a deep ball intended for Darrius Heyward-Bay, but Rowe could be an issue for the Patriots when they face the Falcons’ high-flying attack.

■  Trey Flowers was the only player to hit Roethlisberger, and the Patriots pressured him only three other times. But Alan Branch had another fantastic game up front, logging four run stuffs and a quarterback pressure and often getting the better of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. Flowers was a little quiet this game, with one run stuff in addition to his QB hit, but when the Steelers ran the ball, it was Flowers whom they singled out for double-teams.

The linemen up front (particularly Branch) did a great job of holding their ground in 1-on-1 combat with the linemen and not leaving their gap assignments. Vincent Valentine’s run stuff for minus-3 yards on the goal line, while squeezing through right tackle and right guard, was the play of the game and totally shifted momentum.

■  Dont’a Hightower only played 36 snaps while Shea McClellin played 43 and Kyle Van Noy 42, but I think this was mostly scheme-related. The Steelers spread the Patriots out in three- and four-receiver sets all day, the Patriots needed their quicker players on the field, and Hightower is more of a physical thumper who doesn’t always thrive in coverage. The Patriots didn’t play one snap of base defense in the first half.

Special teams

■  Is Stephen Gostkowski having issues again? He missed one extra point to the right in the third quarter, and had a second PAT drift to the right that barely crossed over the upright. Gostkowski had several misses to the right earlier this season, and moved his kicking point on PATs to the left hashmark to compensate.

■  Great game in coverage by rookie Jonathan Jones, who looks like the next great Patriots special teamer. He had a massive hit on Justin Gilbert on a kickoff to stop him at the 22-yard line, then made a great shoestring tackle on Brown to prevent a long punt return.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin