SevenQuest - Part Eight
So What'cha Want?
The Steelers beat down the Patriots.
Now onto a bigger and better challenge, beating the Ratty Rats from Ratimore, with their incomplete defense, dearth of wide receivers, inexperienced tight end, cowardly robot of a quarterback and their smug-for-no-good-reason coach.
But FC will get to that matchup in good time. For now, let's look back.
It's been a long time since the Steelers beat Tom Brady. But when they finally beat him, they beat him the right way. It wasn't some quick-strike offensive shootout where he simply didn't get the ball last. It was an exercise in frustration for Brady, who didn't have the ball often. And when he did, a combination of pressure and tight coverage limited his ability to do what he likes to do. That was a beautiful thing to watch.
The Ryan brothers supposedly have laid out a "blueprint" for how to slow the Patriots' offense, but it's simpler than that. And the Steelers showed how simple it can be, even without three first round cornerbacks on the roster.
If you can shut down the running game, you can shut down the Patriots' play action passing game. That's their only source of big plays, they don't have receivers that can make plays deep if there's safety help. The Steelers took away the run first, making a statement on the first drive of the game, when a stuff of BenJarvis Green-Ellis (wonder if he's related to Pierre-Luc Létourneau-Leblond?) set up a 3rd and medium instead of 3rd and short.
After shutting down the running game (and thus the big plays), the next step is to do all you can do to shut down Wes Welker. Welker is more than the Patriots' best receiver. He's Brady's security blanket. Take him away, and it forces Brady to make throws he'd rather not make. With Deion Branch and Chad Johnson being easy to cover at this point, this strategy means that literally the only option left for the Patriots is their tight ends, who are admittedly very good. But neither is good enough to totally take over a game. Rob Gronkowski got his numbers against the Steelers, but he was far from dominant.
Now, Ike Taylor is a special player. Few teams have a cornerback with his ability. But the lesson is, put your best guy on their best guy and let it ride. The Steelers would do well to take heed of this lesson next week. Taylor needs to follow Anquan Boldin all over the field. Forget Torrey Smith (the Steelers have typically assigned Taylor to the deep threat if another team has one - he shadowed Lee Evans in the opener). Smith has more drops through 7 games than Limas Sweed had during his Steelers career. And when he's not dropping it, it's typically because Flacco overthrew him. Keenan Lewis or better yet Cortez Allen would competently handle this matchup, freeing up Taylor to take Boldin (Flacco's security blanket, throw it up and let him push off) out of the game.
Getting back to the Patriots, those couple of keys compound things by making Tom Brady uncomfortable, and Tom Brady simply isn't very good when he gets uncomfortable. He becomes hesitant (his first instinct is to always take care of the football), and when that happens there's a chance to pressure him. That's what happened yesterday, as LaMarr Woodley got home for a couple of huge sacks.
The question remains - how much of what the Steelers did defensively was different schematically, and how much of what they did differently was due to the added speed they have on defense now? It doesn't much matter which came first, but both elements have been revelatory so far this season. Keenan Lewis' emergence has sorted out the secondary nicely, as he's got the ability to play man to man and even press coverage, whereas Bryant McFadden was purely a zone corner. Willie Gay is the big beneficiary here, as he's getting matchups where he's built to have some success, such as against Deion Branch. Personally, I believe that the only necessary tactical adjustment was putting Taylor on Welker. I think that would have been plenty to slow down the Patriots, assuming the run defense held up. But that wouldn't necessarily apply to a team with a legitimately deep receiving corps, like the Packers, so it was great to see the Steelers' young corners being allowed to play aggressive pass defense.
In the end, it was still about players making plays. The big difference was that the players were put into position to make the plays they were capable of making. Three individuals deserve a ton of credit.
First, Dick Lebeau. He put together a great gameplan that showed great trust in a variety of young players who were thrust into major roles due to injuries.
Next, Mike Tomlin. The changes in coverage philosophies date back to his arrival, and it's not just one scheme that they're leaning on. They've shown the ability to be variable in what they do given the opponent, and that kind of flexibility will allow them to compete against all kinds of offenses.
Finally, Kevin Colbert. He's quietly assembled the best of all scenarios with this defense - a veteran group backed up by talented future starters. Colbert has taken chances by continuing to bring back the old guard. Some have paid off, like Ike Taylor. Some, like Aaron Smith, have been betrayed by their bodies. When you've got the kind of young, inexpensive depth the Steelers have on defense, there's no such thing as a gamble when it comes to decorated players like Smith, James Farrior and Casey Hampton. If they're healthy and productive, great. If they're hurt or struggling, that's fine. Reinforcements are waiting in the wings. Colbert is overseeing the turnover of one of the great defenses of all time in a way that ensures that the defense will continue its dominance.
Now that's genius.
1. Great shot kid, now don't get cocky. Here's a legitimate question - does this win give you any more confidence about a possible re-match with the Patriots in the playoffs? I'm only asking because had the Steelers lost, we'd be searching for reasons to believe that in the playoffs things would be different. My thought is, the Patriots are likely to try something else next time. But I'm beginning to think that the talent gap is wide enough that it simply might not matter anymore. Think about it historically. When is the last time a tight end centered offense won a Super Bowl? The Super Bowl has typically been about wide receivers making plays, while teams who predominantly feature the tight end like the Kansas City Chiefs with Tony Gonzalez and the Chargers with Antonio Gates are easy outs in the playoffs.
2. Before yesterday, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders had played 315 of 376 total offensive snaps, combined. That's about what a single #2 receiver plays, if not a little less. If we treat the two of them as a single receiver and extrapolate their stats over an entire season, they'd finish with 104 catches for 1,348 yards and 6 touchdowns.
3. Ryan Mundy is the unsung hero of this defense. The Woody High grad has allowed Troy Polamalu to play inside the box in packages, where he's free to create confusion. To this point, it hasn't resulted in takeaways. But those takeaways are coming. Mundy has been solid against the run and solid in coverage, while giving the back line more size. He's proven himself to be the heir apparent to Ryan Clark at free safety, and I wouldn't be surprised if he signs a very reasonable extension this offseason that affirms this status.
4. Shaun Suisham's inaccuracy is becoming a problem. Make that field goal, and the ending would have been a lot less tense. The issue is, whom would be brought in to replace him? There are some total retreads available, like Shayne Graham, Dave Rayner and Joe Nedney. They're no more reliable than Suisham. There's Swayze Waters, who was in camp with the Steelers. He had a big leg, but it's hard to trust a young kicker who showed some accuracy problems himself. But then there's one guy out there who knows what it's like to kick at Heinz Field. Jeff Reed. He's unemployed right now, and it might be interesting to bring him in for a look. Before he got a half-season's worth of the yips, he was a clutch kicker working on a franchise tag and is more talented that Suisham. I was all for Reed's dismissal last year, but there's just something that feels right about bringing back Skippy, who got a big dose of humility from the Steelers' front office.
5. The Steelers have a chance to lay claim to another AFC North title these next two weeks. The win yesterday was huge, but as Mike Wallace said "people act like this game is so big. It's nothing, just another game." He's right. The big games happen when divisional supremacy is on the line. The Ravens will show up. The Steelers will show up. It's up to the Steelers to continue to improve their execution in all three phases so that superior talent rightfully prevails in the end. Joe Flacco beat Ben last time. I don't believe that will happen again.