It was already going to be an uphill climb.
With 13:21 left in the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the New England Patriots 33-9. Now they sat third-and-goal on the Patriot 2-yard line. A touchdown and a 2-point conversion could make it a 16-point game with 13 minutes to play, allowing a glimmer of hope for the Steelers.
In the shotgun, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and surveyed the field. His line – which held up tremendously against the Patriot rush all evening – was at its best on this play.
Trying to get around Steeler left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, Patriot defensive end Trey Flowers tumbled to the turf and laid there for about three seconds until he realized that Roethlisberger had still not thrown the ball – at which point he scrambled back to his feet and re-joined the rush.
Next to him, defensive tackle Alan Branch – whose contribution to this game was enormous – was tangled up with center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. After pushing into them for several seconds, Alan looked behind him to see where the pass had gone, only to realize that Ben hadn’t thrown it yet.
After six full seconds – an eternity by NFL standards – receiver Cobi Hamilton broke clear over the middle. Roethlisberger delivered a strike and for a brief moment, the Steelers had a glimmer of life.
And in that same moment, yellow flags littered the field. Hamilton – in his efforts to elude cornerback Eric Rowe – had stepped out of the back of the end zone and had become an ineligible receiver. Knowing this was the case, Rowe dropped his pursuit, allowing Hamilton to uncover and encouraging Roethlisberger’s throw.
Now it was fourth and goal from the two. Realizing that a field goal helped them not at all at this point, Pittsburgh lined up to go for it. Again the target was Hamilton as he curled into the right flat, pursued this time by Logan Ryan. Roethlisberger lofted the pass over Logan’s head, and Hamilton – spinning back for the ball in the end zone, actually felt the ball rest for a split second on his fingertips when Ryan reached a hand in and knocked the pass away before Cobi could bring it down.
If any two plays could serve as a microcosm of this game, it would be these two. Throughout the contest – and in spite of the terrific athleticism of the Steelers – the Patriots were always just a little quicker and a little smarter as they punched their ticket to Super Bowl LI with a steady 36-17 victory.
Moreover, this was the second time that this game had pivoted on a critical goal line stand.
When the Game Got Away From Pittsburgh
The series of events which spelled the Steelers’ doom began with ten minutes left in the second period. Pittsburgh had just capped a 13-play, 84-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run that cut New England’s lead to 10-6. Now, with 10:06 left before the half, the Patriots faced a third-and-ten from their own 30. One play away from giving the ball back to the aroused Pittsburgh offense, Patriot quarterback Tom Brady sat easily in his pocket (as the Steelers only sent three pass rushers after him), and found Julian Edelman all alone over the middle of Pittsburgh’s very soft zone for 12 yards and a first down.
Two plays later, New England was in third down again – third and eight – from its own 42. Once again, Pittsburgh’s loose zone coverage left receiver Chris Hogan uncovered in the left flat. He took Brady’s soft pass and raced down to the Steeler 34-yard line for a 22-yard gain.
Having had two chances to get off the field, Pittsburgh’s defense would not get a third. On first-and-ten from the Pittsburgh 34, Brady handed the ball to running back Dion Lewis who ran with it almost to the line of scrimmage. There he stopped and flipped the ball back to Brady, who finished the perfectly executed ‘flea-flicker’ with a touchdown toss to Hogan. Now the Patriots led 17-6.
Back came the Steelers. Two dump passes to DeAngelo Williams gained 18 yards and gave the Steelers a first down on their own 48. Roethlisberger converted a third-and-two with a 12-yard pass to Antonio Brown, and followed that up with an 11-yard completion to tight end Jesse James. First down at the Patriot 21.
On first down, Hamilton ran a streak up the left side and gained just a sliver of separation from Rowe, but Roethlisberger’s well-thrown back-shoulder pass bounced off Cobi’s chest. This missed opportunity would soon be overshadowed by an even greater missed opportunity. A 2-yard run by Williams brought Pittsburgh to third-and-eight from the New England 19-yard line at the two-minute warning.
Pittsburgh converted the third down as James beat safety Patrick Chung up the right sideline and Roethlisberger threw him the ball at about the 11-yard line with plenty of open space before him. Converging on James as he reached the Patriot goal line were Chung and safety Duron Harmon. Seemingly, they didn’t get there in time as James tumbled over the goal line. The official’s arms raised. The Pittsburgh sideline celebrated. The points went on the scoreboard – it was now a 17-12 game with the Steelers contemplating a two-point try.
And then they checked the replay.
Harmon, somehow, had managed to drive James to the ground one-half yard away from the touchdown. So it wasn’t 17-12 yet. And, as it turned out, it never would be.
Two running plays lost four yards. On the second running play, the Steelers had right guard DeCastro pulling – always dangerous on the goal line. Patriot defensive lineman Vincent Valentine knifed through the void in the line and dumped Williams in the backfield. Roethlisberger’s third-down throw to Eli Rogers was well wide, and the Steelers kicked the field goal.
Pittsburgh’s first four “red zone” plays netted 18 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh’s fifth red zone play accounted for another 18 yards (the pass to James). In Pittsburgh’s last seven red zone plays of the season, they netted just seven yards and missed two opportunities that would have changed the complexion of the game.
All in a day’s work for the New England defense.
New England’s Defense
In Foxborough, Massachusetts, everyone lives and works in Tom Brady’s shadow. One of the most decorated quarterbacks in history, Brady has been the starter in New England for 15 full seasons, now. Those teams have missed the playoffs only once, while Brady is less than twenty-four hours away from perhaps his fifth Super Bowl title. He is the focus of the football universe.
But in 2016 – flying almost completely under the national radar – New England assembled an exceptional defensive unit that is as responsible as the offense for leading Patriots into the Super Bowl. This defense will be one of the critical elements in their upcoming victory. Unlike Atlanta or Green Bay there are no Vic Beasley’s or Clay Matthews’ or any name superstar. No one from the Patriots was among the league leaders in sacks or interceptions. Unlike the offense, there is no center of media attention. Yet the Patriots (who during the season surrendered the fewest point of any defense in football) mostly dominated one of football’s best offenses (Pittsburgh came into the game ranked seventh in total yards and fifth in passing yards). They did so in a manner that is wholly unique to the Patriots. Instead of a collection of compelling talents, Bill Belichick and his staff has composed an army of specialists who simply do their job.
What defensive lineman Alan Branch does for a living is not remotely glamorous. He is an unlikely candidate to appear on the cover of GQ magazine. He doesn’t hold a fistful of records or gaudy sack totals. It’s entirely doubtful that the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated will feature a glossy photo of Alan with his cleats dug into the Gillette Stadium turf fending off the charge of two enormous offensive linemen. Yet that is how he spent most of the evening.
One week after the elite offensive line of the Steelers carved up the Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 171 rushing yards, Pittsburgh was limited to just 54 in New England as Branch and his defensive line mates Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Jabaal Sheard relentlessly and unceremoniously hurled themselves at that offensive line. Where as the week before, that line had repeatedly pushed the Kansas City defensive line back into its own secondary, this week nearly every Pittsburgh running play more closely resembled a rugby scrum where the line of scrimmage was littered with the bodies of fallen linemen, allowing the linebackers unfettered access to the ball carriers.
Behind the unyielding defensive line roams a linebacking corps that resembles a collection of Swiss army knives. Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts do a little bit of everything. The rush the passer, they play tight pass coverage – especially in man schemes, and they tackle. Oh yes, they tackle. When the Patriot linebackers arrive on the scene, the progress of the ball carrier halts. Over the years, the Patriots have earned the reputation as the most fundamentally sound team in football. One needs look no further than this collection of linebackers to validate this reputation.
An honorary membership in this group needs to be extended to safety Patrick Chung. Listed generously at 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung doesn’t at all fit the physical profile of a linebacker. But he is almost always within 7 or so yards of the line of scrimmage. A lot of the defensive backs in the league will do what they can to let some of the bigger defenders stop the running games. Patrick Chung lives to mix it up with the big boys. Sometimes you will even see him lineup in between the big defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage.
The backbone of this impressive defense is a secondary that gets more impressive every time I watch them – especially cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe. Their efforts in man coverage against the very talented Pittsburgh receivers was more than a little stunning.
At the end of the day, Roethlisberger and his receiving crew ended up just 9 of 23 (39.1%) when throwing against New England when they were in man coverage. Antonio Brown – one of football’s elite offensive talents – ended his night with just 7 catches for 77 yards. For the season, Antonio caught 106 passes for 1284 yards. His first two playoff games saw him collect 5 passes for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns against Miami, and 6 passes for 108 yards against Kansas City.
Against the New England man coverage scheme – which was basically Butler with safety help over top – Brown was only targeted 4 times. He finished with 2 catches for 22 yards.
Let’s let that sink in a bit. Four targets, two catches, twenty-two yards. What was the unimaginably clever defensive scheme that the Patriots used to foil Pittsburgh’s most dangerous weapon? Press man coverage from Butler with safety help over the top. As defensive schemes go, this is hardly the theory of relativity. What made it work was simple execution. In the do-your-job universe of Bill Belichick, if your job is to cover Jones, then you cover Jones. No other activity during the play will distract you from your job. Patriot defensive backs do not get caught looking into the offensive backfield when they are in man coverage. The expression of this philosophy is appallingly simple. Its execution is something most teams consistently fail at.
Super Bowl Prediction
There is an assumption by many that the New England defense will be as helpless against Atlanta’s great wide receiver Julio Jones as every other defense has been. I beg to differ.
As I play through the game in my mind, I see the Patriot offense probing the young Falcon defense until it settles on one of the weaknesses to exploit – it could be Atlanta’s issues in stopping the running game or its difficulty covering tight end Martellus Bennett in man coverage. After the number that Brady did on the Steeler zone defenses, I doubt that we’ll see Atlanta play much zone against them. They are not terribly good at zone defense, anyway. Probably they will try to pressure Brady up the middle. My guess is that we will see much more blitzing from Atlanta than we did from Pittsburgh. The pressure will give the Falcons their best chance at slowing the Patriot offense. But blitzing Brady comes with its own set of risks. The Steelers only blitzed him six times and Brady was 6-for-6 for 117 yards and a touchdown when they did.
Anyway, it’s difficult to imagine that Atlanta will hold the Patriot offense to fewer than, say, 33 points. This places the onus squarely on the Falcon offense to match the Patriots touchdown for touchdown.
When I reflect on how unimpressive Atlanta’s offensive line was against Green Bay and how dominant New England’s defensive line was against Pittsburgh’s much better offensive line, I have a hard time imagining that Atlanta will be able to establish any kind of running game. This will force Matt Ryan to win the game through the air – throwing against this very skilled man coverage defense.
Will New England shut out the Patriots or eliminate Julio Jones entirely from the mix? Almost assuredly not. Ryan is an elite quarterback and Jones is probably the best wide receiver in football.
But will a one-dimensional Falcon offense (even if that one dimension is Ryan-to-Jones) be enough to win a point fest against the Patriots? I’m going to have to say no.
After a season of turmoil, we are a few hours away now from its concluding game. The Atlanta Falcons have grown up very quickly. They have now moved themselves into the upper echelon the NFL. But – it says here – they are not yet a match for the Patriots. But then again, who is?