Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Deconstructing the Patriots

As Snow White's step-mother found out, looking in the mirror sucks.

Even though that mirror might have been a bit of a pedophile. Seriously, Snow White was like 7 years old and the mirror said she was fairer than the Queen? (Wiki has the proof)

But sometimes it's something you have to do. Especially when you're playing a team that has beaten you consistently over the last decade. The question has come up across various media outlets and talk shows this week: are the Patriots just that much better than the Steelers or is it something about the Steelers that they just can't beat the Patriots?

Tunch and Wolf even went as far as to call New England the "White Whale" to the Steelers Captain Ahab.

Maybe you want to think of them as the Mongoose to our Cobra.
Either way, the analogy is pretty accurate. The Patriots are a beast we just can't tame.

The question is - why?

Focus on the Playoffs

General football theory, much of which has been passed down from generations past, says that the most important thing to do in the regular season is to win your division. Theory says that you win your division, get home games in the playoffs, then let the chips fall where they may. The practical application of this theory is usually seen through the NFL Draft and free agency - you draft players to combat what other teams in your division are doing. This was no more evident than when Houston drafted Defensive End Mario Williams with the #1 overall pick in the draft. Why draft Williams over a quarterback or running back? According to Texans execs, it was because they felt they needed to get more pressure on Peyton Manning.

What New England has done is give this theory a giant middle finger.

Rather than build a team based on what other teams in their division were doing, they focused on the bigger picture: the playoffs. Excluding the Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts have dominated the AFC landscape over the last decade. The Colts went to the playoffs 9 times from 2000-2010 and won 7 division titles. Over that same time span, the Steelers went to the playoffs 7 times and won 6 division titles. In response to this, the Patriots built a team for the sole purpose of beating the Steelers and Colts in the playoffs. Over the 8 times the Patriots reached the playoffs from 2000-2010, they faced the Steelers and Colts a combined 5 times, going 4-1 against them. More importantly, 4 of those 5 games were AFC Championship Games. The Patriots built their team to succeed in the playoffs, specifically against the Steelers and Colts.

Pittsburgh and Indianapolis vs New England

Now, when you look at both the Steelers and Colts from a distance, you might think the teams don't have much in common. But digging deeper, the Patriots have been able to find the similarities and exploit them.

Pass Rushers

When you talk about the Steelers defense, you always have to start by talking about the outside linebackers. Whether those players were Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Harrison, or LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers defense is built on getting pressure of the edge. Similarly, the Colts defense is built around defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis - guys that bring the heat off the edge. In response to this, the Patriots have heavily invested in offensive tackles in the draft - choosing 12 tackles over the last 11 drafts, an average of over one per year. By comparison, they have only drafted 5 guards and 2 centers over that time span. The Patriots investment in offensive tackles has enabled them to combat these outside rushers, but also made them weaker up the middle. If you look back over the teams that have been able to beat them recently, all of them have gotten pressure up the middle and taken away Brady's ability to step up in the pocket.

Run-Stopping Linebackers and Safeties

While the Steelers linebacking tradition is strong and hard to argue with, it's difficult to see the Colts in the same light. However, when you look at the Colts linebackers over the past 10 years, while they haven't been as physically dominant as the Steelers backers, they still fly to the ball and focus more on stopping the run or playing zone defense. Similarly, in the Steelers zone blitz scheme, linebackers are typically dropping into zones across the middle. If the Steelers linebackers do line up in man coverage, it is usually against running backs or tight ends. The Steelers and the Colts have both had a safety win defensive player of the year, but for as good as Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu have been, both have been exposed in pass coverage. The Colts typically play a 2-deep zone or "Tampa 2" look under Dungy with the MLB dropping into the middle of the field. While the Steelers defensive looks have varied, none of the safeties they have had have been excellent in man-to-man coverage.

To combat this, the Patriots have done a number of things. The first is to have a tradition of pass-catching tight ends, dating back to Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and continued now with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. These tight ends create mismatches against linebackers or safeties. To attack the 2-deep safety look the Colts run, the Patriots utilize a Tight End post route (which we've seen a million times from Brady over the years) to hit behind the linebackers and in between the safeties in the zone. This is one of Brady's signature plays from about 15-25 yards out from the goal line. Gronk tortured William Gay with this route last year.

The other factor in the Patriots offense that has made them so deadly to the Steelers and Colts is their ability to hit running backs out of the backfield. Whether this was Kevin Faulk or Julian Edelman, the Patriots have utilized a "pass-catching running back" more than anyone else in the league. While guys like Faulk or Edelman aren't necessarily physical specimens, they are small and quick, a difficult matchup for linebackers to cover, particularly on 3rd and short situations.

The Patriots are able to spread the ball across the field. Running swing passes to running backs (which draws inside linebackers out of the middle of the field) leaves the middle open to tight ends. On top of that, the Patriots took the Bill Walsh philosophy of utilizing short passes instead of runs to the next level. They spread the field with multiple-receiver looks, forcing their opponents into either a nickel package or to move some of their linebackers out of the middle of the field, then can hit you with a draw play or quick-hitting run.

Soft coverage on the edge

In the Cover-2 scheme the Colts run or the Steelers scheme, the corners tend to play off-coverage, giving a 5-10 yard cushion at the line to prevent the deep ball. In the Colts scheme, this enables the corners to keep their eye in the backfield and set up in their zone. In the Steelers system, the corners rarely get safety help over the top, so even when they are in man coverage, they can't play bump-and-run because they have to keep the play in front of them.

When you look at the Patriots wide receiving corps over the last decade, only once have they had a true deep threat - Randy Moss. The rest of the time, their receivers have basically been a collection of #3 possession receivers. Whether that is David Boston, Deion Branch or Wes Welker, the Patriots offense is built to move the ball by getting small chunks of yardage underneath the coverage. If you have watched teams that have given the Patriots problems (like the Jets in recent years), they tend to have corners that play in press man coverage and don't let the Patriots receivers get off the line clean. Playing off coverage just invites quick passes to the wide receivers.

Big plays in the passing game

While it is somewhat difficult to compare the styles of offense played by the Steelers and the Colts, one thing is similar: both thrive on big plays in the passing game. Under Bill Cowher, the theory was that you passed to get the lead and then ran the ball to protect it. Under Tomlin and Arians, the fullback has been eliminated and Ben given more freedom to spread the ball around the field. Peyton Manning, one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history, unlike Tom Brady, prefers to take shots downfield to his wide receivers, that the Colts have invested high draft picks to acquire. For the Colts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne made their living by going downfield and making big-time catches. For the Steelers, a slew of different receivers have filled the "deep threat" role, whether that was Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, or Mike Wallace. The two teams differ in that the Colts tend to use more vertical routes and post routes to their deep threats where the Steelers utilize deep in routes or double-crossing routes.

To combat this, rather than assembling cover-corners to run around the field with their opponents receivers, the Patriots go for the jugular. They go out and find corners and safeties that are ball hawks and big hitters. The Patriots have lined up two of the biggest cheap shot artists in the game - Rodney Harrison and Brandon Merriweather - at safety over the last decade. Their corners, from Asante Samuel to Devin McCourty (who led the league with 7 interceptions last year) are traditional ball hawks. Rather than defend the pass, the Patriots have built a secondary that consistently goes after the ball while it's in the air. over the last 10 years, Patriots defensive backs accounted for 157 interceptions, an average of almost one pick per game. To make matters worse, 18 of those picks have been returned for touchdowns. If you want further proof that the Patriots built their secondary to face the Steelers and Colts, consider this: in the 19 playoff games the Pats have played over the last decade, they have 27 interceptions. Of those 27 picks, 6 have come in their 3 games against the Colts and 6 have come in their 2 games against the Steelers.
That's 44% of their playoff interceptions in only 26% of their playoff games.

Defensive Scheme

The question must be asked - why have teams like the Steelers and Colts struggled against the Patriots but teams like the Jets have been able to succeed against them? For starters, the Jets in recent years have utilized one of the best defensive schemes against Brady - keeping him off the field. The best way to do this has been to run the ball against the Patriots, chew up clock, and control time of possession. However, when the Steelers tried to run the ball against New England last year, they had limited success in doing so. Why is this? Because the Steelers were predictable in their offensive approach to the game. They ran on first down, got 2-3 yards, then were forced into passing downs on 2nd and 7+.

The Patriots don't blitz much, and have never had top-tier pass rushers, but they will bring pressure in obvious passing situations, and they will do everything they can to force the offense into making mistakes. Over the last 10 years, Patriots defenders have posted 18 6+ sack seasons. By comparison, the Steelers have had 28 6+ sack seasons over that same time span.

The best way to attack New England is to be unpredictable. Yes, we can run on first down, but we shouldn't get in a habit of doing so. Against the Patriots, who are always well-prepared for the tendencies of their opponents, we have to do things differently, we can't ride the same formula to victory.

Offensive Scheme

The same is true on defense. There may not be a better quarterback in the league at reading defenses than Tom Brady. The Patriots generally run an offense with Brady in the shotgun, which gives him the opportunity to look out over the defense before the ball is snapped and read who is blitzing, enabling him to get the ball out of his hands quickly.

Watching New England, teams that are successful against them get pressure on Brady from the interior - not from the outside. Brady utilizes short passes (usually 1 and 3-step drops) that enable the ball to come out faster than pass rushers can get to him from the corner. When his initial looks aren't there, Brady likes to extend the play by stepping up in the pocket, not by scrambling out to the side as Roethlisberger does. Since Brady likes to step up in the pocket, pressure up the middle is the best way to throw him off his game.

The Patriots utilize their collection of small quick receivers to run quick slants and come-back routes that allow Brady to get the ball out fast and hit guys in stride so that they can catch the ball and turn it upfield for more yards. If it's there, Brady will take shots downfield, but he's not going to force the ball deep like Brett Favre would. Brady is the master at taking the check-downs and working the ball down the field, literally dinking-and-dunking the opponent to death.

Third and Short

From watching New England (shockingly I couldn't find any hard stats on this), they do a better job than anyone I've seen at getting into 3rd and short situations. Once again, this flies somewhat in the face of common football theory which says to succeed you need to "win" on first down. "Winning on first down" is generally thought of as getting 4+ yards to get yourself into a second down situation where you can either run or pass. However, what the Patriots have done so successfully is "win" on second down. Regardless of what happens on first down, the Patriots make sure they always get into third and short situations. Even though they throw the ball a lot more than they run, the Patriots will mix in runs to keep the defense honest. By winning on second down, the Patriots are able to keep drives alive by staying out of 3rd and long situations. Additionally, 3rd and short situations enable them to keep running their same offense - it enables Brady to keep making short throws. On 3rd and short, Brady doesn't have to hold on to the ball for that extra second because receivers are still running 5-yard routes instead of 10-yard routes. Since Brady is able to still get the ball out fast on 3rd down, he rarely gets sacked, even when teams bring exotic blitzes after him.

A chink in the armor?

All that said, Brady is not invincible. He is at his best when the Patriots have a lead and he is able to move the offense at his will. Where he starts to break down is either when the Patriots are trailing or he starts to feel like the number of possessions he has left is limited. When the pressure gets turned up and Brady knows he needs to move the ball and put points on the board, he starts to rush throws and force things. This is where he makes mistakes and teams can take advantage. Granted, he is still Tom Brady and is still capable of making great plays to win games. But if there is a small scratch, it is when things start to go poorly for Brady: if he is getting pressured up the middle, if his receivers aren't making catches, if his passes are getting intercepted. The Bills had success against Brady by tipping passes, their defensive line did a great job of getting their hands up and knocking down balls, creating either incompletions or interceptions. Brady will never make a downright terrible throw like Brett Favre would, and when he misses, he tends to miss low (which leads to incompletions) rather than high (which leads to interceptions).

In conclusion, I hope this gives you a better sense of why the Patriots have been able to be so successful against the Steelers and how they will probably attack us on Sunday. This isn't to say that the Steelers can't win. They can. But there are certain things they will need to do to win. They need to get pressure on Brady up the middle. They need to hit him and knock him down. They need to play press coverage on the receivers. They need to cover tight ends. They need to score touchdowns instead of field goals. They also need to score early. Last year Ben had one of his best statistical games of the year, throwing for over 350 yards and 3 touchdowns. But the lions-share of those yards and touchdowns came in the fourth quarter when the game was already over. The Steelers were down 23-3 going into the fourth quarter, and though Ben mounted a spirited comeback, they still fell short 39-26. It is going to take a complete team effort to beat New England.

And we've done it before.

We all remember the "21 and Done" game on Halloween in 2004.

...what's to say we can't do the same thing on Halloween Eve in 2011?

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