Film Study: How the Steelers finally foiled Brady
Everybody was waiting for the Pittsburgh Steelers to fail again.
As detailed in our Week 15 preview, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski & Company torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 173 points in the last five meetings, all New England Patriots victories.
The task was even tougher Sunday, with Pittsburgh’s offense producing just 17 points. Ben Roethlisberger threw two picks, Chris Boswell missed a chip-shot field goal and a forward-progress ruling nullified a strip and recovery by the Steelers’ D in its own red zone.
A glaring question mark coming in, Keith Butler’s defense was outstanding … after its first series, anyway.
New England came out and dictated with tempo, creating confusion and easy yards, and then sprung Chris Hogan for the most wide-open catch (18 yards from the nearest defender, per Next Gen Stats) by any NFL player this season. The 63-yard touchdown came directly from a matchup-zone coverage bust — one of the Steelers’ concerns we detailed in Thursday’s preview — and looked like a harbinger of another big day for Brady.
Instead, that was almost all New England could muster. The Patriots followed with five consecutive punts, a 13-play, 63-yard field-goal drive that required a pass-interference penalty to convert third-and-16, and two red-zone failures that sealed the game.
After watching Brady dice up their zones for years and solve their man coverage late last season, the Steelers struck a perfect balance on Sunday. On early downs, Butler mixed in five-man pressures with matchup zones; in long-yardage situations, he used more traditional zones (dropping eight at times) but often rotated to them from various disguises; and on most third downs, he opted for 2-man coverage with a key wrinkle.
Rather than leaving his two safeties deep, Butler had them sit 10-12 yards off the line and play aggressively downhill. One of the two (usually rookie Terrell Edmunds) bracketed Gronkowski, who was also matched by a man underneath (usually Sean Davis, whom Gronk exploited in single coverage last year). The other high safety was mostly kept free to double-team routes between the numbers.
The approach dared Brady to throw deep and outside, areas he has struggled to attack with age, and limited Gronkowski to two catches for 21 yards. It also routinely forced Brady to his second or third read, which the Steelers’ pass rush made more difficult by pushing the pocket.
Despite getting home for just one sack, rushers repeatedly put bodies (their own, or New England’s blockers) near Brady’s feet, forcing him to reset and drift rather than stepping up on balance. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt combined for seven QB hits, and even 352-pounder Dan McCullers had a pressure. The payoff came with one of the worst interceptions you’ll ever see Brady throw: a hot air balloon off his back foot — as Heyward, Tuitt and Watt converged — on second-and-goal from the 16 midway through the fourth quarter.
The Patriots’ most consistent production came on the ground and off play-action, but game script limited those opportunities. Brady hit Gronkowski and Edelman for a combined 38 yards on back-to-back play-action throws early in the fourth, but New England’s final 15 snaps included 12 straight dropbacks, two runs and one play-action screen as it played catch-up.
Gronkowski’s other grab came when Edmunds played a hair too deep from his 2-high alignment, allowing a key third-and-8 conversion, but Pittsburgh held him to five total targets.
Two of those came in the final three plays, but Gronkowski was actually used as a chip-blocker twice on the final drive — a startling role for the man who had four grabs for 69 yards on the game-winning march last year.
In terms of efficiency, the Steelers weren’t quite as good as 10 points allowed would suggest. New England’s unforced errors included six presnap flags and three or four drops. Pittsburgh also faced just nine drives — it would have been eight if Roethlisberger converted the final third down — as both teams’ rushing success (254 combined yards on 44 carries) shortened the contest. The Pats wound up averaging more yards per play than the Steelers (6.6 to 6.2), with red-zone failures the biggest difference.
Even so, Butler and his unit deserve tremendous credit. Other than an early hiccup, they executed a slew of coverages and disguises with discipline and chemistry. Pass rush aided coverage and vice versa, exactly how you draw it up. And all 11 defenders rallied to the ball like madmen, eating up the screens and quick throws that used to papercut Pittsburgh to death.
Unlike last year, the Steelers have more work to do just to reach January, but if current standings hold, they’ll meet the Patriots again in three weeks. That game would be in Foxborough, but you know what they say: defense travels.
-Colts beat Cowboys with bully ball
The Colts’ win Sunday was no shock, but their methods certainly raised eyebrows.
Indianapolis beat Dallas — riding defense and timely playmaking to a five-game win streak — at its own game. Andrew Luck completed just 16 passes for 192 yards and no scores, but the Colts ran for 178 yards and held the Cowboys to 292 total yards (4.6 per play).
Given his familiarity with his opponent, Colts defensive coordinator (and former Cowboys assistant) Matt Eberflus’ plan was telling. As expected, he favored Cover-3 over Cover-2 to get an extra safety in the box against Ezekiel Elliott, but he also mixed in myriad changeups through blitzes.
Though he rarely rushed more than five, Eberflus sent several defensive backs on blitzes, including some with multiple Dbs. Many came from the slot, but not always — on one third down, outside cornerback Quincy Wilson aligned over the center and rushed the A-gap, an extremely uncommon tactic.
The approach was aimed at speeding up Prescott — whom Eberflus knows well from facing him in practice — mentally while keeping eyes on the mobile QB in zone. Prescott delivered some nice throws, but he let several get away from him, sailing crossers and underthrowing wide-open targets.
Indy’s defensive line gave Dallas’ battered front five fits. Denico Autry, Margus Hunt and 2017 fourth-rounder Grover Stewart fired aggressively off the snap, getting penetration or bench-pressing their man into the backfield. Such aggressiveness creates extra run lanes — Elliott totaled 87 yards on 18 carries — but it also prevents O-linemen from reaching linebackers as easily, keeping stud rookie Darius Leonard and second-year man Anthony Walker clean to make tackles.
The penetration short-circuited many runs, as center Joe Looney (starting for Travis Frederick), right guard Connor Williams (starting for Zack Martin) and left guard Alex Redmond (replacing Xavier Su’a-Filo, who left in the second) reacted too slowly to slants and backside swim moves. Looney failed to reach Hunt on an outside-zone run on perhaps the game’s most critical play, a fourth-and-1 stuff from the Colts’ 3-yard line early in the second quarter.
The D-line also bothered Prescott often with its rush. Outside of intriguing but inconsistent rookie Kemoko Turay — who didn’t play Sunday — the Colts’ front has few rushers reliant on speed or quickness, meaning most are best off going through blockers. That doesn’t always produce sacks (just three Sunday), but it’s better for pushing the pocket, and Prescott was often forced off the spot.
Hunt and Autry (six sacks in his last three games) each put dents in the line, with Autry doing the most damage. Before beating Redmond late for a sack, he forced Looney to drag him down for two holding penalties, including one nullifying a fourth-and-2 conversion in the third quarter. (Autry also blocked Brett Maher’s 48-yard field-goal attempt on the opening drive.)
On the back end, the Colts’ zones were disciplined and cohesive. They held up long enough to create a pair of coverage sacks, including one thwarting a deep play-action design. Leonard showed great awareness for routes and closed quickly to break up two throws to Cole Beasley, tipping one to Walker (who dropped an interception), and knocking another down on fourth-and-1 to open the fourth quarter. Cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Pierre Desir were steady but not standout — like most of the season — each delivering key break-ups.
While Eberflus’ unit stole the show, the Colts’ offense also ran right through a previously stingy Cowboys D. Marlon Mack led a sustained run game with 139 yards and two scores despite a long of just 21. He broke six tackles, gaining at least 4 yards after contact on 10 carries and at least 6 after contact on seven totes.
Indy’s offensive line won with both scheme and physicality. Frank Reich employed all kinds of runs with misdirection elements — most notably trap, but also split zone, pin-and-pull and some arc releases — and there was a clear emphasis on climbing quickly from double teams to reach the Cowboys’ fast young linebackers.
Center Ryan Kelly, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (often as a puller) landed squarely on Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, both of whom have proven adept at slipping blocks. The Colts’ front also handled the Cowboys’ slants and stunts quite smoothly, a testament to their composure and chemistry.
The win was Indianapolis’ seventh in eight games, but this felt different than the others.
We know Andrew Luck is capable of carrying the Colts. If the defense and run game are ready to take turns as well, this team could do serious damage in January (assuming it finds a way in).
-How sustainable is the Vikings’ new offense?
Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski had one heck of a debut as an NFL playcaller.
The newly promoted quarterbacks coach guided Minnesota to touchdowns on its first three possessions and totals of 41 points and 418 yards. More importantly, the Vikings had the balance Mike Zimmer wanted from John DeFilippo, posting season highs with 220 rushing yards on 40 carries (5.5 average).
But it’s far too simple to say everything is fixed.
There’s a reason DeFilippo was hesitant to run it. The Vikings topped 4.0 yards per carry in just three of their first 13 games, mostly due to an offensive line that struggles to clear lanes and sustain blocks. The group had issues last year too (3.9 ypc) and didn’t really replace retired guard Joe Berger. Even with rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill settling in surprisingly well, the unit remains shaky.
The Dolphins’ wildly inconsistent run defense certainly aided Sunday’s efficiency. Starting tackles Akeem Spence and Davon Godchaux were moved almost at will, and notably up-and-down linebackers Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan swung hard in the latter direction, getting sloppy with their run fits and struggling to shed blocks. Likewise, an inordinate amount of production came against very light boxes — sometimes creating 6-on-6 blocking — and via shoddy tackling by Miami’s cornerbacks, factors that can’t be counted on every week.
Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray ran extremely well, and Stefanski helped them with more use of fullback C.J. Ham (18 snaps, second most this season), adding dimension to run designs. The tight ends and wideouts also blocked well, sealing edges and allowing the backs to bounce.
Perhaps most encouraging from Stefanski’s approach was the overlap between the run and pass game, something DeFilippo’s scheme often lacked. Many of the Vikings’ passes on Sunday came out of run-heavy formations, as Stefanski put Kirk Cousins under center more, used condensed sets and employed motion toward the line to help sell play-action. Cousins, who always thrived off play-action in Washington, responded well, reading the field with definition and delivering accurately from inside and outside the pocket.
The performance wasn’t without hiccups — after Cousins’ pick-six, Minnesota gained just 18 yards total on its next four possessions (excluding the end of the first half) — and there will be bumps moving forward. Stingier run defenses and less favorable game scripts will test Stefanski’s patience. As Zimmer said afterward, “It’s easy (to run it) when you’re getting five and six (yards) a pop.”
Likewise, teams will keep double-teaming wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (just six catches for 68 yards combined Sunday) and force someone else to beat them.
Kudos to Stefanski for implementing the changes Zimmer wanted and debuting with flying colors. Now let’s see how defenses respond, and whether or not the issues that previously plagued Minnesota’s offense resurface.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media