Monday, November 4, 2013

The Boston Massacre: Steelers Lose

The Steelers lost 55-31. You really don't want to read a play-by-play recap of this game. There really isn't any consolation in this game. The Steelers are 2-6. This is an awful team. They got behind to start the game, battled back to force a tie and then fell into a script we've seen all too often against Brady. The Patriots build a lead, the Steelers give them the ball back, and the lead grows. The Steelers then might score to cut into the lead, but they never get within striking distance because the Patriots just keep scoring. The only reprieve is when the clock hits zeros. In this one, it was decidedly worse than any other Steelers-Patriots game in the past, but to be honest, we've seen this script before.

Tom Brady has had some career games against the Steelers. His best to date was a 32-for-46 for 399 yards and 4 TDs drubbing in the Anthony Smith game, which the Patriots won 34-13. Let that sink in for a minute. The Anthony Smith game where we all remember Brady absolutely lighting up the Steelers secondary was actually CLOSER than this game was.

That's right. The Patriots at the height of their dynasty, in the midst of an undefeated regular season with the Steelers starting Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter at safety, was actually a closer game and allowed less yards and less points than we did in this one. The Steelers only allowed two 100-yard receivers in that game (Randy Moss had a 7/135/2 line and Jabar Gaffney posted 7/122/1 while Wes Welker tallied 9/78/1). I don't even know where to go from there.

In 2010, Brady and the Patriots jumped out to a 10-0 lead and extended it to 23-3 by the end of the 3rd quarter. The Steelers roared back in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 29-18, but they could get no closer as Brady led a scoring drive that pretty much iced the game. Even that game, a  where Brady was 30-for-43 for 350 yards and 3 TDs was a better defensive performance than this game.

So let's start with Brady. In both of the other trouncings Brady attempted over 43 passes and completed at least 30. In this game, he only ATTEMPTED 33 passes and completed just 23 of them. 23 completions. For 432 yards. That's right, Brady topped his 2007 game where he threw for 399 yards by throwing for 33 more yards on 9 less completions. And that's not even including the 55 free yards the Steelers gave away on 3 pass interference penalties. Here's an exclusive look at a conversation Gronk and Amendola had with Brady on the sideline:

Pretty much, though you could also include Aaron Dobson. It makes you wonder if the Steelers defense was even on the field. Rob Gronkowski came out of the game with 9 receptions for 143 yards and a score, Amendola tallied 4 catches for 122 yards and a score and Dobson had 5 catches for 130 yards and 2 scores, including an 81-yard touchdown where he blew past Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark.

To cap things off from a downright shameful defensive effort, Stevan Ridley had 115 yards and 2 TDs on the ground with LeGarrette Blount adding 47 yards and a score at the end of the game that literally drove the nail into the coffin of the Steelers season. Blount was bottled up by the defense with Ziggy wrapped around his shoulders, Timmons around his feet and McLendon pushing behind Ziggy. He was somehow able to spin out of that and then dive into the end zone with Ryan Clark alligator-arming a tackle. Seriously, I don't even know what Clark was trying to do. Actually, that seems increasingly true for every play that Ryan Clark is involved in.

Of course, all the rhetoric this week will be about how the Patriots executed better and how the team is embarrassed and how they will vow to be better in the future. That sounds good to the media, but until we actually see some improvement on the field, it's all just empty talk. Mike Tomlin can say all he wants about holding players accountable for poor efforts, but until he actually benches a veteran like Ryan Clark rather than just swapping out young players like Ziggy Hood and Jarvis Jones, it will mostly be empty threats. Of course, there is a difference between coaching and on-field performance. However, when you have a blueprint that works then refuse to replicate it, something is obviously wrong. In their last meeting, Dick LeBeau devised a defensive scheme that shut Brady down to the tune of 24-for-35 for 198 yards and a long of 23 yards. That game featured rookie CB Cortez Allen matching up exclusively against Gronkowski and the corners playing press coverage on the outside. That defense suffocated the Patriots offense. 

In this game, Dick LeBeau went back to the formula which has never worked against Brady: corners playing soft on the outside and the defense playing zone (rather than man) behind the blitz. As I mentioned, Brady's longest completion in their last meeting was for 23 yards. In this game he had 5 passes (2 for touchdowns) longer than 23 yards. Let's look at the 57-yard completion to Danny Amendola.

Here pre-snap we see a number of things that indicate a problem for the Steelers defense. First is personnel. It's a first and 10 and the Steelers are in their base 3-4 defense while the Patriots have 3 wide receivers spread across the field. Ike Taylor is giving Julian Edleman a 7-yard cushion at the bottom of the screen while William Gay is giving Dobson a 10-yard cushion at the top. As for Danny Amendola, he is the only one that has a defender lined up close to him, but that defender is not nickel back Cortez Allen or even a defensive back, but rather linebacker LaMarr Woodley. You don't have to be Tom Brady to have a giant red flag got up when you see Woodley on Amendola. With the Patriots in 11 personnel, the fact that the Steelers countered with their base defense is asinine. There was absolutely a breakdown in coverage on this play, but there was also a breakdown in coaching not putting the right personnel on the field to cover it.
All five receivers get free releases, with the 3 WRs all easily getting to the second level behind the linebackers, stressing the Steelers secondary. If you watch the replay a few times, it's pretty easy to figure out what the route combination was that the Patriots ran. It looked something like this:
The basic concept here is one designed for a moderate gain against a Cover-Two defense. The two vertical routes will stretch the two deep safeties, pulling them down the field which should allow for the middle crossing route (Edleman) to be open behind the linebackers (who should be drawn up into coverage by the running back (Blount) and tight end running short routes. This is where the problem with personnel comes into play. From the tape, it seems the Steelers are running some kind of zone concept, which they are forced into because they do not have enough cover corners to match up with the Patriots receivers.

Looking at the Steelers defensive concept, it appears that they are in some sort of Cover One or Cover Three. At the top, Gay runs deep with Dobson while Woodley buzzes out to play zone in the flat. Troy is playing deep. I'm not sure if he was supposed to be playing deep center or deep right. If he was playing deep center in a Cover One concept, then he made the mistake by drifting towards Dobson on the right rather than covering Amendola on the left. If he was playing deep right, the pass was actually Ryan Clark's fault (which I'll get to in a minute). The two middle linebackers are also in short zones, and their attention is drawn by the RB and TE. I'm not sure what Ike was doing at the bottom of the screen. He wasn't in man coverage because after Edleman got a free release, he was able to run past the linebackers and across the middle of the field. Edleman's route is what really caused the problems for the Steelers. If you watch the replay, you will see Ryan Clark leave his safety position and suck up towards Edleman once he gets past the linebackers. The problem here is that with Edleman running from left to right, this draws Clark away from the left side of the field, allowing Amendola to drift freely from the middle of the field to the left side, where there are no defenders. 

This image sums it up perfectly. Clark breaks towards Edleman and runs right past Amendola. Troy's head is looking directly at Dobson, on whom Will Gay actually has decent coverage. Brady sees this and comes up firing. 

57 yards later, Amendola has the Patriots inside the 20 and ready to score again.

What we have here is the perfect example of why the Steelers have been so bad this year. 
  1. The coaches did not put the proper personnel on the field to defend the Patriots 3-wide set. Now, before you can think that this happened because the Steelers did not have a chance to substitute, think again. The play directly before this was a pass to Gronkowski to convert a 3rd down where Cortez Allen made the tackle. Gronk and Allen were not on the field for this play, which means that both teams made a substitution. Even though Gronk left the field, the Patriots still had 3 WRs on the field. Yet the Steelers went back to their base defense, taking Allen off the field.
  2. The Patriots had a play called that was designed to attack the personnel the Steelers had on the field. This is a simple matter of game-planning and play-calling. LeBeau called for what essentially amounted to a Cover Three concept while the Patriots had a play that was designed to decimate a zone defense. In all likelihood, the Patriots knew by this point that the Steelers weren't playing man coverage against their receivers and called a play designed to attack the zone. They got a zone, and got a big play.
  3. The players did not execute the defense. What were the safeties doing? Ryan Clark totally ran himself out of position and out of the play. In leaving his side of the field, Clark allowed Amendola to run totally wide open. Troy had his head turned to the outside and didn't even see Amendola until it was too late. Also, I'm not sure what Ike was doing. From the looks of the defense, he was apparently supposed to be in a short zone, but there was no defensive back deep on his and Clark's half of the field.
  4. The pass rush did not get there. Brett Keisel got some token pressure, but Brady was easily able to step away from it. The Steelers only rushed 4 on this play, but a good pass rush can make up for poor execution on the back end.

 So where do we go from here? Are there any positives to take away from this game? Well, if you looked at the box score and didn't watch the game, you would probably think something entirely different transpired. Ben Roethlisberger, in his own right, threw for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Steelers broke the 30-point barrier for only the second time during Todd Haley's tenure (the other was in a 34-31 loss to the Raiders last year). As a team the Steelers totaled 110 yards rushing on just 18 attempts against the worst run defense in the league. Looking at all those numbers, you would only have one logical conclusion.

For the most part though, you would be wrong. The Steelers failed to execute at the most important times during the game. I detailed in my game preview that both the Steelers and the Patriots had been slow starters this season, and you would think that after spotting Oakland a 21-point lead last week there would have been some extra emphasis this week on starting fast and putting points on the board in the first quarter. How did this first quarter go?

Four drives, 71 yards, 9 minutes and 38 seconds of possession, and a 7-0 deficit. Two turnovers (fumble, interception) and a 3-and-out punt. Entering this game, the Steelers were 0-5 when committing two or more turnovers on the season. They committed 2 in the first quarter of this game, with the Patriots capitalizing on the interception and striking for a touchdown on the very next play. On their drive that carried over from the first to the second quarter they turned the ball over on downs.

The Steelers did come out of halftime and give us a glimmer of hope of what this team was capable of doing when they play to their potential. The defense created a turnover which led to a touchdown on a great throw from Ben to Cotchery. The defense stood tall again holding the Patriots to a 3-and-out and the offense countered with another touchdown to tie the game. In the scope of the second half, the defense held the Patriots in relative check (holding them to a field goal) on the next drive. 

The Steelers dug out of a field position hole and got across the 30. Then in two plays, the whole game changed. These two plays are the exact exemplification of the Steelers issues with performing in the clutch. They were down by only 3 and driving. Ben missed a wide open Heath Miller across the middle of the field and the Steelers were forced to punt. The Patriots showed a block, forcing the Steelers to bring their gunners in tight. In a situation where you HAVE to get hang time on a punt, even if it's a short kick, you can NOT out kick your coverage. Recently signed Matt McBriar did neither. He kicked a 41-yard line drive right to Julian Edleman who returned the kick 43 yards to set up the Patriots inside the Steelers 40. In two plays, the Steelers went from driving for a potential go-ahead score to having to defend the Patriots in a short field trying to extend their lead. Ben missed Heath and Matt McBriar made a horrible punt and the Special Teams unit gave up a big return. 

Yes. At 2-6, the Steelers season is effectively over. This team is not like the 2006 Steelers that can mount a second-half charge and hope to even finish at 8-8. This team has lost to Jake Locker, Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler, Matt Cassel and Terrelle Pryor. Tom Brady and the Patriots just shredded the defense for more points (55) and yards (610) than any Steelers defense has given up in the 81-year history of the team. As a team the Steelers gave up 197 rushing yards for the SECOND CONSECUTIVE WEEK. 

This sums everything up.

The Steelers will continue to play. There are 8 more games. We get another shot at Baltimore. We have a home game against Cincinnati. We will play Cleveland twice. Those games will be for bragging rights and pride. But after this game, the season is over. The best thing that can happen to the Pittsburgh Steelers is for it to be December 31. 

No comments: