That’s how long it had been since the Steelers beat the Patriots before Pittsburgh’s 17-10 win over New England on Sunday. That 2011 win had been Mike Tomlin’s lone victory over Tom Brady, who owned the Steelers over those eight matchups, completing 70.8% of his passes for 2,571 yards, 23 touchdowns and one interception.
The Steelers have spent the last few seasons tinkering with their roster and defensive scheme in order to finally slow down their nemesis. It never seemed to work, as Brady would invariably carve up whatever strategy the Steelers coaches would draw up and they’d eventually retreat back into their soft zone defenses that would, at the very least, delay the inevitable.
Well, there was no need to revert back to that ultra-conservative strategy on Sunday. After an opening-drive coverage bust led to the Patriots’ lone touchdown, Brady never looked comfortable, especially not on third down. On those key plays, the Patriots quarterback finished 5-of-9 for 32 yards and only two first-down conversions.
So how did the Steelers finally figure out their Tom Brady problem? Let’s dig into the film to find out.
How do you beat Tom Brady? The same way you beat every other quarterback: Play man-to-man defense and collapse the pocket. But there are only a handful of teams with the personnel to do that snap-after-snap, and the Steelers are not one of them.
So Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler were forced to get creative this past week. Well, kind of. Pittsburgh’s defensive gameplan was creative but it wasn’t wholly original. It closely resembled the plan the Titans, and Belichick protege Mike Vrabel, employed to beat New England in November. And that gameplan was awfully similar to the ones we’ve seen Belichick employ to great effect over the last two decades. Essentially, the Steelers beat the Patriots using their own strategies.
Let’s focus on Pittsburgh’s strategies on third down since that’s where the game was won. There were three key tactics the Steelers used to take Brady out of his comfort zone and force him to come off his first read. We’ll look at all three…
Doubling Josh Gordon and Rob Gronkowski
It’s rare that you see NFL teams throw true double teams at a particular receiver on a given play. It’s even rarer to see a team double TWO receivers on the same play, but that’s what the Steelers did numerous times on Sunday, with Gronkowski and Gordon being the two targets.
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The Steelers saved this strategy for third-and-long situations. The thinking: Gordon and Gronk are the only downfield threats on the field. If the Pats are going to convert, one of these other receivers will have to make a play downfield.
Pittsburgh dared New England’s other players to beat them, and, well, they couldn’t. Julian Edelman filled up the box score but didn’t help the Patriots move the chains. Only two of his 11 targets resulted in first downs. Chris Hogan was quiet after that first touchdown. Cordarrelle Patterson caught three passes for 20 yards. The rest of Brady’s targets went to running backs.
With Gordon and Gronk taken out of the game (they combined for 41 yards on three catches), New England had no Plan B.
Dropping eight into coverage
This was a tactic the Titans used particularly well in their win over New England. You’ll find teams dropping eight into coverage every Sunday but they typically play a straight zone defense when doing so. Tennessee played man coverage and dropped their two free underneath defenders into areas the Patriots typically attack with slants and shallow crosses.
The Steelers used the same strategy in third-and-short scenarios and forced Brady to make difficult perimeter throws to move the chains.
The Steelers are giving up a pass rusher here, but in this situation, where Brady is looking to get rid of the ball quickly, the rush isn’t getting to Brady whether they’re sending four or three guys after him.
You cannot give Tom Brady any clues before the snap or else he will shred you. The Steelers understood this coming in and designed a handful of shrewd designs that blurred Brady’s pre-snap read. They typically looked like this…
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The Steelers are showing one of their typical zone blitzes before the snap. Brady is expecting to see the three-deep, three-under coverage Pittsburgh likes to run behind a blitz. Against that defense, Edelman (lined in the left slot) would typically be open, but the Steelers shift into a Tampa-2 look (two-deep, five-under) that takes Edelman away and forces Brady to adjust.
Rarely did Pittsburgh line up in one coverage look and actually end up playing it, even if it forced one defender to cover a ridiculous amount of ground in order to get into proper position.
These elaborate rotations threw Brady off his rhythm, which is a must when playing an offense built on timing and precision.
The Steelers coaching staff has been fairly criticized for the head-scratching gameplans it has devised for the Patriots, but there was nothing to criticize on Sunday. Tomlin and Butler out-coached Belichick and Josh McDaniels by doing what New England typically does to opposing offenses: the Steelers took away what the Patriots do best and forced them to go outside of their comfort zone.
This wasn’t your typical loss where New England’s offense struggles, which usually involves Brady being under siege for 60 minutes. Pittsburgh sacked Brady once and pressured him only nine times on 37 drop backs. This was a schematical victory more than anything.
That the Patriots staff, which is the best in the league at making in-game adjustments, could not find answers, especially after struggling with against these same tactics in Tennessee, could be a sign that this wasn’t some throwaway plan that won’t work again. The Steelers — and Titans before them — may have finally uncovered a viable blueprint for beating this flawed Patriots offense.
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