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How the Steelers defense bested the Patriots last season, and what it means for Sunday night

The Pittsburgh Steelers got the best of the Patriots in 2018. How did they do it, and what does it mean for the Week 1 matchup this Sunday?

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It’s finally here. Game week. The most universally exciting week of the football calendar. Barbecue grills are being prepared. Coolers are being stocked. Terrible Towels steam-cleaned and ironed. Everyone is undefeated. Hope springs eternal.

Our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the season Sunday night in New England against the (ugh) Super Bowl champion Patriots. It is a rematch of last December’s exciting game in Pittsburgh, a 17-10 Steelers victory in which the home team surrendered a 63 yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Kevin Hogan on New England’s third play from scrimmage and thereafter held the Patriots to a measly three points. It was the Steelers best defensive effort against a Brady-led Patriots squad in what felt like an eternity.

How did the Steelers do it? And what might last season’s approach mean as we anticipate Sunday night’s opener? Let’s take a look.

The Steelers’ Approach

The Patriots ran 56 plays in that December contest from two personnel groups: 11 and 21. They ran 34 snaps from 11 personnel. On 33 of those, the Steelers played their Dime with five defensive backs spread across the field plus safety Morgan Burnett plugged in as a linebacker, usually opposite Vince Williams.

When the Patriots went to their 21 group, the Steelers generally responded with their base 3-4 personnel. The Steelers were in base on 14 of the 22 snaps New England ran from 21. On the other eight snaps, the Steelers stayed in their Dime. These were usually passing situations like 2nd and long.

On their opening series, New England came out in 11 personnel and the Steelers countered with their base 3-4. The first chess move of the evening came on 2nd down, when New England brought in fullback James Develin and went to a 21 personnel look. Rather than stay with their base, the Steelers went Dime. This is curious, since the Steelers counter to New England bringing in a bigger group was to go with a smaller one of their own:

Obviously, the Steelers wanted speed on the field rather than brawn. Perhaps they didn’t fear New England’s run game and wanted to force the Pats to run the football. Unfortunately, on that first series, they didn’t get their wish.

Two plays later, with the Patriots back in 11 personnel, the Steelers stuck with the Dime and were burned by Hogan for the long touchdown. It was a terrible job of communication by the Steelers, as corner Artie Burns ran with his receiver in man coverage while the corner on the opposite side of the field, Joe Haden, played a zone technique. Haden released Hogan on his crossing route while Burns ran across the field with his New England counterpart. This put Haden and Burns on the same side of the field with no one on Hogan as he crossed from left to right (free safety Sean Davis wound up running with Burns’s man, in effect making it 3-on-1 to the top side). Hogan came wide open as a result and trotted into the end zone for a score. Inauspicious beginnings, to say the least.

Burns was thought to have been the culprit here because the play put a quick end to his evening. He was immediately benched in favor of Coty Sensebaugh, leading most to conclude it was Burns who had blown the coverage. After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin indicated the mistake did not fall on Burns. Perhaps Davis was to blame, then, for his failure to take Hogan on the cross. Whatever the case, the gaffe didn’t cause defensive coordinator Keith Butler to shy away from his scheme. He matched New England’s 11 personnel with his Dime group for the rest of the game, usually with great success.

What Made Butler’s Approach Successful?

There’s nothing revolutionary about the matchup approach Butler took. Within that approach, however, were several creative twists that, coupled with sound fundamental execution, made it effective.

First, Butler followed an old adage about how to defend Brady by relying on his front to create pressure. In this instance, that meant two linemen plus two backers in the Dime or three plus one in the Base. T.J. Watt had a monster game. He recorded a sack, three hits on Brady and lots of plays like the one below where Watt, coming off of the edge to the top of the screen, made Brady very uncomfortable.

Watt’s pressure afforded Butler the luxury of not having to blitz much. On the Patriots 37 pass attempts, he brought five rushers just six times and never brought more than five. Brady went 4-6 against those pressures but the four completions totaled a pedestrian 26 yards. The pressure got the ball out of Brady’s hand quickly and forced short throws to underneath receivers. Still, Butler preferred to rush four and not risk having Brady carve up the pockets in the defense voided by the blitz.

As an alternative to blitzing, he opted to disguise his coverages before the snap in an attempt to confuse Brady. Before you scoff at that notion, let’s take a look at a few of the better disguises.

Here the Patriots have a 3rd and 8 from just across midfield late in the first quarter. The Steelers are in Dime against an 11 personnel look from New England:

Pre-snap, the six defensive backs (Terrell Edmunds is not in the photo; he is aligned near the 35 yard line in the center of the field) and linebacker Vince Williams are in constant motion, jumping around, showing blitz, exchanging responsibilities. It looks like cover-1, especially when Cam Sutton (20) moves across the formation with the receiver in motion. At the snap, however, the underneath players come off of their men and Morgan Burnett bails into a deep zone. I’ve watched this a dozen times and the best I can come up with is that it’s cover-3 because of the four underneath defenders and the three deep players. Brady doesn’t appear sure, either. He looks left, doesn’t find what he’s looking for, and then has to bail as Watt closes in. Vince Williams comes with delayed pressure to force an inaccurate throw from Brady while he’s on the move. The coverage disguise combined with forcing Brady from the pocket was a win for the Steelers.

Here’s another one. 2nd and 10 in the 2nd quarter, Patriots ball following a bad Ben Roethlisberger interception. This is Dime again against another 11 personnel look from New England. As seen in the photo below, the Steelers show a pretty clear pre-snap cover-2 look:

There are two high safeties, two corners playing at about six yards off the ball and two midfield underneath players. A third (Vince Williams), is at the line pressing the slot receiver.

This is not pure cover-2. At the snap, the Steelers rotate into a “Robber” look with Sean Davis rotating down from his deep half into the hook zone to the wide side of the field. Meanwhile, box safety Morgan Burnett sprints back to replace Davis. This look is designed to provide Brady the illusion that the middle of the field is open when Davis is actually taking it away (the term “Robber” comes from the fact the safety rotating down is taught to “rob” any short throws into his area).

The Patriots didn’t take the bait here. They threw a quick out to Julian Edelman rather than attacking the middle of the field. The design by the Steelers was creative, however, and kept Brady from trusting his eyes too much with what he was seeing before the snap.

Another reason Butler’s strategy of attempting to confuse Brady and/or get the ball out of his hand quickly succeeded was how well the Steelers tackled in the open field. Tackles like Joe Haden’s in the GIF above were par for the course. The Steelers did a nice job closing on Patriot receivers and getting them on the ground quickly once they caught the football, thereby nullifying the yards-after-the-catch that a short passing game often relies upon.

Finally, the Patriots helped Butler’s cause by playing an unusually sloppy game. I counted four sure drops by New England receivers and a couple of others that were borderline. More problematic were New England’s 14 penalties for the game, an astounding number for one of the most disciplined teams in football.

So, to summarize: Butler put his Dime package on the field almost 75% of the time (41 of 56 snaps) against the Patriots last December. He rarely blitzed, relying on four-man pressure and coverage disguise to get to Tom Brady. TJ Watt had a stellar night rushing the passer and the Steelers secondary, with the exception of one snap, communicated and executed the coverage disguises extremely well. The Steelers also tackled well as a team, and 14 penalties by the Patriots didn’t hurt the cause, either. Put that all together and it was their best defensive performance against Tom Brady in ages (if not ever).

What Might We See Differently Sunday Night?

Now, it’s a new season. The Steelers have played just two football games since their victory over New England last December yet so much has changed. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are gone. Devin Bush is the new centerpiece of the defense. There is no Gronk to game-plan for. The Patriots are, again, the defending Super Bowl champs.

Bill Belichick is a legendary film guru so there is no doubt he has committed the Steelers December game-plan to memory. Still, the core of that plan will likely remain. The Steelers will probably go Base when the Pats go 21 personnel and go Dime against three and four-wide looks. But to confound Brady as they did in the last meeting, the Steelers will have to find new ways to disguise coverages. Morgan Burnett is gone, so will Mark Barron get the box safety role in the Dime package? Will it be Terrell Edmunds, with Kam Kelly as a two-deep safety? What about the other way around?

With better speed on defense, maybe the Steelers will play more cover-1 than they did last time and bring the blitz more often. Heck, maybe they’ll break out that 7 DB look San Diego ran against the Ravens in the playoffs. Who knows? They’ve had all summer to work on new looks and wrinkles.

The Patriots have had all summer to prepare as well. No doubt we will see some new wrinkles from them too. New England has struggled to fill Gronk’s shoes, shuttling tight ends in and out of Foxboro all spring and summer in search of an adequate replacement. As of now, they are rolling with Lance Kendricks, Ryan Izzo, Matt LaCosse and the corpse of Benjamin Watson. Watson and Kendricks will both miss the game due to substance-abuse suspensions. Izzo and LaCosse have 27 career receptions between them. As of this writing, the Patriots are yet to sign another tight end.

New England with two marginal tight ends seems fishy. What’s up Belichick’s sleeve, then? Will we see three-back sets that utilize their trio of versatile runners - Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead? In December, the Patriots ran four plays from 21 personnel that included White and Burkhead as the backs. The Steelers went Base 3-4 against those looks, but without a true fullback they weren’t really heavy sets. Might New England employ multi-back sets minus fullback James Develin to get the Steelers into their base to exploit their linebackers in coverage? If the Steelers play those looks in Dime, can New England run the ball inside with Burkhead or White as a lead blocker?

Or will we see a heavy dose of 10 personnel from the Patriots with receivers spread across the field and Brady living in the underneath zones? Tight ends have been such fixtures of the New England offense for so long that it’s hard to envision it without them. Maybe Izzo and LaCosse are really good. Or maybe Belichick is reinventing the Pats attack as we speak. The Pats played a grand total of 2.5 percent of their snaps in 2018 without a tight end, the lowest figure in the league. Seems like a perfect reason for Belichick to buck the trend and run a heavy dose of four and five-receiver sets at the Steelers.

Or, with 6’3-225 pound Josh Gordon eligible to play Thursday night, will we see Gordon plugged in on some of the seam, corner and crossing routes Gronk used to run? Gordon isn’t nearly as big as Gronk but he’s a large, physical receiver. Having Gordon run Gronk’s route tree would allow for consistency in the Patriots passing progression while providing the Steelers a different look from which to defend them.

Whatever the case, I expect a heck of a football game Sunday night. It’s a faster, more versatile Steelers defense versus a new-look Patriots offense. Let the chess match begin!