After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. Week One saw the Patriots open their title defense with a 28-21 victory over Pittsburgh, despite the Steelers outgaining them by over 100 yards. Mike Tomlin's salty post game press conference insinuated that headset malfunctions contributed to the loss, but a look back at the film reveals several clear schematic advantages from the Patriots game plan that Tomlin and his staff didn't adjust too.
The Steelers defense talked to the press leading up to the game about their plans to defend Gronk with constant, physical jams at the line of scrimmagey. From the first play of the game on, it was apparent that wouldn't be the case.
Take a look. The Patriots start with both Dion Lewis and Gronkowski in the backfield, Julian Edelman split out wide left, and both Danny Amendola and Scott Chandler bunched in the right slot. Pittsburgh matches with it's typical 3-4 base defense: three traditional down linemen, two outside linebackers on each edge of the line of scrimmage, two inside "off the line" linebackers and four defensive backs. Lewis quickly motions out of the backfield to split all the way out wide on the right, a motion likely designed to see whether the defense will declare it's coverage through its reaction.
Pittsburgh appears to do just that. They had initially matched two defensive backs (safety Will Allen and corner Antwon Blake) to the Amendola/Chandler bunch, and Blake responds to Lewis' motion by matching him out wide. However, that leaves just Allen to contend with two receiving threats, meaning the Steelers are either in a zone coverage or something is severely messed up.
After getting that initial look, the Pats hit them further with a late motion by Gronk, who moves from the backfield into the left slot. This appears to create some massive confusion for the Steelers, as multiple defenders can be seen yelling and attempting to signal to each other right up until Brady receives the snap. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the "coverage" player closest to Gronk, adjust his alignment slightly to the left, but not nearly enough to properly account for the threat of Gronkowski. Ostensibly, the Steelers have two defensive backs to account for Edelman and Gronk on the left side, but one is the deep safety. The defense is already severely compromised before the snap.
So much for jamming Gronk at the line of scrimmage. Instead, as you can clearly see, the best tight end on the planet has nothing but green in front of him for 20 yards and a free release to attack that seam. With the deep safety too far back to prevent an easy gain down the field, Gronk's go route attracts attention from both Timmons and outside corner William Gay, who is responsible for Edelman on the outside. That creates tons of space for Brady to play pitch and catch with Edelman on the easiest 13 yard gain you'll ever see. The play was called back when Nate Solder got caught retaliating for the sneaky throat-punches of Jarvis Jones, but it remains emblematic of how New England uses its personnel to create advantageous situations for its playmakers.
Another example of using motion to decode the defense came on Brady's second quarter dime of a throw to Danny Amendola. Once again, Lewis motions out of the backfield to being split out wide. This time, linebacker Lawrence Timmons follows him all the way from the middle of the field to outside the numbers, a clear giveaway that the Steelers are playing man coverage.
Seeing this, Brady has complete confidence in the play call, which takes full advantage of the attention Edelman and Gronk demand from defenses. Edelman, split all the way out left, runs a straight go route, which takes his man out of the picture and occupies the safety on that side. Meanwhile, Gronkowski runs a simple five yard hitch, which Amendola uses as a legal pick. That's all the separation Amendola needs, as Edelman has already cleared out the left sideline for him, and Brady lofts a perfect touch throw into his hands for 18 yards.
They used a similar concept on Scott Chandler's third quarter touchdown. They start the 2nd and goal play in a traditional three TE look, 1 FB power formation, but with an additional tight end (Chandler) lined up as the fullback in the backfield. The first motion is from Michael Hoomanawanui, who motions from the right edge of the line to being split out wide, drawing a defensive back (again, an indication of man coverage). This triggers a second motion, which sees Gronkowski (aligned on the left edge) and Chandler motion out wide as receivers. The Steelers are forced to match up with man coverage from their goal line defense, which means Terrence Garvin has Gronk and Timmons has Chandler. The Patriots already have two mismatches, and they make the poor linebackers assignments even more difficult by having Gronk and Chandler run a pick play, with Gronk's in-breaking space creating just enough room for Chandler to get separation and reach the ball over the goal line.
The Pats ran almost the exact same motion on their last touchdown of the game, with Hooman splitting out wide right before Gronk and Chandler motioned out left from the edge (Gronk) and backfield (Chandler). Inexplicably, Pittsburgh had failed to adjust whatsoever, leaving them with the same problematic matches of Garvin on Gronk and Timmons on Chandler. This time, the Pats simply took advantage of the one-on-one mismatch, throwing a fade to Gronk that resulted in six points, a fantastic shimmy, and his fourth spike of the game (remember, his fumble recovery was initially ruled a touchdown as well).
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots pulled out the ol' Knowshon Moreno strategy. Even with explosive second year wideout Martavis Bryant suspended, the Patriots were far more scared of the Steelers Antonio Brown led passing attack than a running game missing star back Le'Veon Bell. Thus, just as they did two years ago in a memorable bout with Peyton Manning's Broncos, the Patriots played nearly the entire game in the nickel, daring the Steelers to run at them. Jerod Mayo played merely 11 snaps, most of them in goal line and short yardage situations. The rest of the game was played predominately in a 4-2-5 defense, with either an extra safety (Duron Harmon) or corner (Bradley Fletcher) on the field in Mayo's place. If that wasn't enough, the Pats further enticed the Steelers into running by making Geneo Grissom (all 262 listed pounds of him) their leader in snaps at defensive tackle.
When the Steelers did attack the Pats light fronts up front, they certainly had success. The Patriots defensive line was consistently driven off the ball (Grissom unsurprisingly being a main culprit) and DeAngelo Williams turned his 21 carries into 127 yards. He averaged over 6 yards per carry and chipped in with a whopping 8 forced missed tackles.
However, it seemed like the Steelers let the Patriots off the hook by not attacking that mismatch more often. When they did feed Williams the ball, it felt like they had the Patriots on the ropes, particularly on a pair of third quarter drives that pushed it to a one-score game. However, he inexplicably only got the ball 21 times despite his overwhelming productivity. The Steelers threw the ball 38 times and ran only 25, despite the Patriots getting gashed in the running game all night.
This isn't to say the Steelers should have ran the ball 40 times and taken the game out of Big Ben's hands. This is still an offense that, at least without Bell, should be built around the strength of it's passing game, specifically Big Ben and Antonio Brown. The passing game was hardly ineffective either, as Roethlesberger completed 68% of his passes for a whopping 351 yards.
However, hammering that mismatch on the ground more would have brought multiple benefits to the Steelers. It would have kept the ball moving efficiently. It would have added to what wound up being a slight edge in time of possession, keeping Brady's ruthlessly effective offense on the sidelines. Finally, it would have eventually forced the Patriots to counter with more base defense, which in turn would have created even more favorable matchup for Ben to attack in the passing game.
Of course, these mishaps are in addition to the glaring ones that were mocked throughout social media during and after the game. Leaving Gronk uncovered on his first touchdown. The lone deep safety shading towards Amendola and Hoomanawanui rather than Edelman and Gronk on Gronk's 52 yard fourth quarter catch and run (apparently he thought 267 pound rookie pass rusher Bud Dupree could hang with Gronk in coverage). The offensive line jumping offsides in reaction to a legal defensive shift that the Patriots have been using for years. Gronk wound up getting the game ball for his efforts, but a second game ball could have been awarded to Tomlin for just how thoroughly his team was outcoached on Thursday night. With that not an option, an earful of Scott Zolak will have to do for his just reward.