When the Patriots have the ball. Because let’s face it, this is the matchup that determines the outcome. Keep the Patriots under 30 and you have a fighting chance. Under 20 and I think it’s an outright win. But how do you do that with Brady and the Patriots passing game the apparent Kryptonite to Dick LeBeau’s 3-4?
The problem is the speed of the passing game. If you can’t disrupt the receivers with a jam off the line, Brady just zips the ball to his man with astounding accuracy, and the defenders can only react and hope to minimize YAC. Getting the jam is step one, but step two is to have the speed to cover the receivers as Brady goes through his reads. Having the LBs cover receivers (WR or TE) is a complete mistake, as the receivers soon find the soft spots in the defense. Step three is to have patience with the DL and LBs to keep sifting through the blocking to get to Brady, incumbent upon success in the prior two steps.
Blitzing allows coverage mismatches that Brady rarely fails to exploit. Only if the Steelers can match speed and man cover will they be able to start mixing in some blitzes.
With Harrison out, Hampton , Farrior, and Worilds questionable, it might seem that the Steelers are at a disadvantage. I disagree. Let’s set the table. Your starting DL should be Hood, McClendon, and Keisel, with Heyward as a guy to rotate in to spell or if a 40 front makes an appearance. The LBs should be Woodley, Polamalu, and Timmons, with Chris Carter as a reserve. Yes, I’d deactivate Farrior and Foote entirely. Polamalu, only putatively the ILB, would be a rover with two primary duties: bracket Welker on every play, and run support. That means if Welker is coming off the line on running plays, Troy would need to diagnose and switch from pass to rush. As the bracket man in Welker coverage, he’s going to playing off the line, looking for opportunities to make a break on the ball, and if it goes run, he can come up from about 10 yards off to meet the ball carrier. I’d rather sacrifice a bit on YPC than let Welker keep getting the ball. Stevenson Sylvester would be the reserve ILB.
This means Troy brings speed to the LB position, but that’s going to allow 5 other DBs to be on the field to blanket the receivers: Ike, Keenan Lewis, William Gay, and safeties Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy.
The yardage distribution in the passing game is primarily between 4 WRs, so this allows Clark to remain deep while the other DBs are in man. The best matchup against Welker is not Ike, who is tall and fast but not shifty, would be a smaller, faster, shiftier DB. That rules out Mundy and Lewis as well. Gay, who runs a sub-4.5, and who has played better inside on slot receivers than as a starter outside, gets the call. His responsibility is to stay inside Welker and allow Polamalu to help out over the top, closing in. Perhaps the biggest mismatch against the traditional LeBeau D is the twin TEs, who are too big to be covered by Gay, and too fast to be covered by Farrior, Foote, and probably beat Timmons most of the time as well. Here is where you put the bigger, more physical DBs Ike and Mundy. Both are mid-4.6 speed guys, so Ike and Lewis won’t get outrun. I’d put Ike on Hernandez, since he plays tighter cover, and Mundy on Hernandez. That leaves Deion Branch, and the reason I wouldn’t have Lewis cover a TE is that he has the speed to keep up with Branch, which Mundy lacks.
By receiving yardage, the Patriots obviously favor Welker (51-785, 37.3%), so Gay and Polamalu would make minimizing Welker priority 1. The TEs combine for 32.8% of the catches (Gronkowski with 29-401, 19.1% and Hernandez with 27-289 for 13.7%),and the tougher draw is the 6’6” Gronkowski, which is why I have our best CB on him. Mundy is 6’1” on a 6’2” Hernandez. Branch (26-369, 17.5%) seems like the kind of receiver Lewis would actually match up pretty well with. The only other receiver with more than 100 yards receiving thus far this season is Chad Ocho Cinco, and Ike and Lewis could cover him if we needed to switch cover on 4 WR. In a 5-wide, I’d switch Polamalu to Hernandez and put Lewis on Chad, with a strong tendency to blitz a corner.
This is essentially the injury-modified Steelers dime package with one exception. In the current dime, James Farrior stays on the field and Steve McClendon comes off (Troy plays CB as Mundy takes SS). Since Troy is essentially a SS/FS/CB/ILB hybrid anyway, this version of the dime would be a good base against a team configured like the Patriots. I would not use it for a team like, say, the Ravens, where the threat is more from Ray Rice and less from four-wide quick-hitters.
Bottom line is that this speed package will never be used and the Patriots will just move the ball downfield on us as they always do. It’s just a matter of how ugly it gets.
When the Steelers have the ball. The offense is relatively healthy, with LG Legursky and WR Ward the exceptions. That means your starting lineup is likely to remain Starks-Kemo-Pouncey-Foster-Scott, with Gilbert available. WR Emmanuel Sanders gets the nod at flanker, with the nearly invisible Jerricho Cotchery available for 4-wides or in relief. The usual mix of RBs will be in play.
The Steelers, like the Patriots, have four primary receivers, and the breakdown of yardage is likewise similar to the Patriots’ top four. Mike Wallace, of course, leads all comers (36-730, 39.3%; compare to Welker – 37.3%), with the nascent Antonio Brown second (25-364, 19.6% – compare to Gronkowski, 19.1%), the bull in the China shop Heath Miller (23-276, 14.9%, compare to Branch, 17.5%), and Ward (26-258, 13.9% – compare to Hernandez, 13.7%).
There’s a very good chance this game will pit passing game against passing game for two reasons. First, the Patriots will load to stop the run. They would like nothing more than to get into a shootout, since they assume they’re always the roadrunner, and every other team in the league is Wile E. Coyote. Second, if the Patriots jump out to any kind of lead, Bruce Arians will drop the running game like it was a fucking dog turd. This version of the Steelers passing game will be something of a glimpse into the future, with Wallace, Brown, and Sanders as WR1, -2, and -3. What Sanders lacks in polish and ability to be clutch he does make up for in speed. Early in the season, the passing game to Brown and Sanders looked shaky, but against the Cardinals, the young duo hauled in 75% of passes fired their way.
Between 90 and 95% of all Steelers offensive plays come from one of 5 personnel sets. About a third of the time is the 11 package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), which is primarily a passing set. About an eight of the time we run 4-wides or 5-wide with the 1 package (0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR), the 10 (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR), or the 0 (0 RB, 0 TE, 5 WR). The 3 WR set should always feature Wallace, and some 2 of the three of Brown, Sanders, and Cotchery. I doubt Cotchery appears more than once or twice here. In the four- and 5-wide sets, all four healthy receivers will be in, with the option to throw to a TE. IMO, this is a crucial opportunity to utilize the RB and TE. The Patriots will be covering us when we run 3-wide sets, forcing Ben to make throws into double coverage and tight man cover. The Steelers could show 3-wide and then release the RB, the TE, or both into the soft zones for hot reads. This will keep the chains moving instead of setting up incompletions or picks. We’ve seen this with David Johnson a bit more lately. Throwing in a rookie like Saunders might give the defense a look they haven’t seen much of, and we’ve seen Redman be effective once he gets the ball in space.
The Steelers need to keep working the crossing patterns and sluggos to Brown and Sanders. The Patriots will concentrate on shutting down the run early and taking away Wallace over the top. I’d save the big strikes to Wallace until the passing game got into a rhythm in the intermediary zones. Over the past five years, Heath Miller has been remarkably consistent against the Patriots (2010: 5-60-0, 2008: 4-60-0, 2007: 4-28-0). I haven’t been able to note the variety of routes Miller runs when not staying in to block, but it appears that a majority of his catches come down the seam right in the middle of the field. With two safeties deep, consider the Wallace TD versus the Colts. Steelers come out in their 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), with Johnson and Miller on the field and Ward and Wallace the receivers. The 12 is a classic run formation but the Colts keep two safeties in deep zone to guard against the big play. As Johnson stays in to block, Miller hits the out between the 10 and 15 yard line, while Ward executes a dig about the same distance deep on the other side, freezing the safeties in their zones, and freeing up Wallace in the middle. Belichick will expect this so I would consider using Miller as the primary in that play to set up a nice 15-yard gain rather than going for, and failing to get, a home run.
Against the Cards, the Steelers used a 22 (actually 3 TEs, but with Johnson as the putative RB), and the play call was for David Johnson to run a drag to get the ball from the 5 to about the 10. The Cardinals messed up their safety coverage, Ben saw it, and hit Wallace in the footrace to the end zone. Beautiful play but one the Patriots would not likely be caught in. This does show Arians is thinking about using the TE in intermediate routes to the sidelines, but the target should be Miller, not Johnson. The beauty of having Mike Wallace in the lineup is that if the Patriots coverage does lapse, there’s a chance it can go for 7 from anywhere in the field. Hitting Miller, Sanders, and Brown in the 10-20 yard routes will open up both the running game and the deep ball.
Unfortunately, Bruce Arians will confuse cause and effect and try to open up the intermediary passing game with the running game and the deep ball, which the Patriots will be well prepared for.
The primary run packages appear to be the 13 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) and the 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Patriots will smell run a mile away. Arians will run Mendenhall early into the wall so that he loses confidence, instead of the smarter opening gambit of running Redman until the front 7 is softened. The counter 34 pike has hit twice this season for spectacular gain (Dwyer 76 yards, Mendenhall 68 yards), but I’m less confident of its success with Kemo in for Legursky. Still, expect to see it and if it works, it could hit big.
Don’t be surprised if we see wide receiver screens early and often, sniffed out and stuffed by the Patriots, as well as the usual early signs that BA is getting antsy, such as the old end-around for 1 yard gained. A smarter gambit would be to use familiar sets with unfamiliar primaries. Instead of going to Wallace deep, hit Miller on the 15-yard or Sanders on the dig. But Arians likes what he likes, and when he gets nervous, he can’t settle into a rhythm and dig himself out. He’s the classic over-compensator.
Bottom line. I’ll be happy if the Steelers hit the underneath stuff, distributing the ball to Brown, Sanders, and Miller, and using Redman early and increasingly after some passing success. But I expect the early going will be Mendenhall up the middle for no gain, and drive-killing deep ball misses to Wallace. Wallace could be the late game kill shot instead of the early game futility, and Mendenall has the speed to exploit a tired Patriots defense and take the air out of the tires. I have absolutely no confidence that will happen.