PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – Over the next two weeks, in the run-up to Super Bowl LI, you’re going to hear an awful lot of platitudes about Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots.
A lot of it regarding the organization being the most consistently successful franchise in NFL history is going to be painfully true. A lot of it regarding Belichick’s ability to coach circles around his colleagues is going to be painfully true. And a lot of it regarding Brady being the most accomplished quarterback not just of the Super Bowl Era, but in the history of the game, is going to be painfully true.
What’s also painfully true is that the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin, and Ben Roethlisberger had the blueprint for beating the Patriots laid out in front of them. And on at least one side of the ball, the Steelers and their coaching staff chose to take a match and use that blueprint for kindling on their chilly Foxboro sideline.
Despite an early injury to Le’Veon Bell taking a big, wet bite out of Pittsburgh’s opportunity to upset the Patriots at home in the playoffs – something that has happened just thrice in the last decade and a half – there was still a chance that a competitive game could be played, assuming the Steelers could adhere to a defensive philosophy that had served them well over the past 2 1/2 months.
They had to be, in a word, aggressive.
Instead, Mike Tomlin and his defensive staff chose to do something he always claims they never do: They lived in their fears.
In fact, Tomlin and Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler didn’t just live in their fears, they took a 25-meter dive into and swam a 100-meter backstroke in those fears.
With an opportunity to use his ever-improving corners and the best pass rush of the last 11 weeks in the NFL, Butler decided to sit back, play a “safe” zone, and let Brady pick his coverages apart like a surgeon. With the opportunity to get in Brady’s face up the middle through the use of some creative pass rush schemes and the opportunity to throw off the timing Brady’s developed with wide receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan by playing physical on them at the line of scrimmage, Tomlin & Butler decided to try to protect their young secondary.
Were they banking on Brady feeling sympathetic and charitable? Did they think that somehow Edelman and Hogan wouldn’t get open with large swaths of Gillette Stadium turf sitting in front of them? They didn’t really think that putting Lawrence Timmons in a soft zone on each of these water bug receivers would be enough, did they? Because that’s what they did on multiple occasions Sunday night.
A soon-to-be 31-year old inside linebacker on a slot receiver is about as treasonous a maneuver as allegedly having a foreign power intercede in a federal election on your behalf.
And it wasn’t nearly as successful.
Somebody get Julian Assange on the internal emails at Steelers’ headquarters last week, because I’d love to know whose idea it was.
Now, here we are 10 seasons into Tomlin’s career – a full decade after the worries that he may try to take Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 Fire Zone defense and Tampa 2-itize it into a 4-3 coverage-heavy defense – wondering what the Steelers’ identity is on defense. They’re not the blitz-heavy scheme that was getting picked apart at the end of LeBeau’s tenure. And they’re not the zone-heavy look we saw Brady dice up like a MasterChef contestant in Foxboro Sunday night. They have a secondary built to play the Fire Zone, a defensive line somewhat built to play the Tampa 2, and a linebacking corps that – based on the age of the participant being discussed – isn’t necessarily great at either scheme anymore.
During their 9-game winning streak the Steelers won by running the ball down their opponents’ throats and playing aggressive up front on defense. Argue if you want that due to Bell’s absence the Steelers could not have won in Foxboro anyway. Regardless, it looked like Tomlin and Butler didn’t believe they had a chance in the first place.
And that’s painfully true.