The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Foxboro this week to kick off the 2015 NFL season against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. With the nullification of Tom Brady’s pending four-game suspension, the Steelers enter the matchup as a 6.5-point underdog.
The last time the Steelers faced Brady in New England in 2013, they were obliterated 55-31. Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns in that game. For the Steelers to have any hope of beating the Patriots this time around, the defense must do a better job of neutralizing the future Hall of Famer.
In this week’s edition of Steelers Film Room, we discuss how the Steelers’ can slow down Brady, by breaking down a few plays from the 2011 contest at Heinz Field. The Steelers’ defense rattled Brady in this game, holding him to 198 yards passing and sacking him three times en route to a 25-17 victory.
The Steelers’ defense stymied the New England passing attack by using a combination of man-to-man and press coverage against spread formations.
Here the Patriots line up in a four-wide receiver set on third and eight from their own 22 yard line. The Steelers counter this look with their dime package and bring nine defenders to the line of scrimmage. All four of the Steelers’ cornerbacks are in press, man-to-man coverage, with help from the two safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, in the middle of the field.
Brady doesn’t have time to beat the coverage over the top, as immediate pressure is applied by the Steelers’ five-man front. Right outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons beats the left tackle with a speed rush, while defensive end Brett Keisel uses a stunt to beat the center and apply pressure up the middle. Brady is forced to step up in the pocket and complete a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is tackled short of the first-down marker.
The importance here will be in the Steelers taking away Brady's hot routes and quick reads on passing plays, especially on third down. The Steelers don't have an established consistent pass rusher like Lamarr Woodley in this 2011 game, but solid blitz schemes should make Brady's job more difficult.
Here, Brady faces a third and three from his own 42 yard line. Once again, the Patriots line up in a spread formation with Gronkowski as the fourth wide receiver. The Steelers counter with the same dime package personnel, but this time, Polamalu lines up next to Larry Foote as the second inside linebacker.
Polamalu and Foote show blitz, but drop into zone coverage at the snap. Brady anticipates the blitz, and throws an inside slant to his first read, Deion Branch, running directly through the underneath zone. Tight coverage from Gay and Foote force an incompletion and the Patriots are forced to punt.
By effectively disguising the underneath zone coverage as an inside blitz, the Steelers defense forced Brady into a pre-snap read, speeding up his internal clock. Showing a variety of looks and disguising coverage is crucial when facing a veteran quarterback like Brady.
It won't be enough to fool Brady with a fake blitz; the coverage still has to be tight enough for there only to be a tiny window for him to put the ball through safely. Making him be perfect is the key.
Facing what is essentially a do-or-die third and eight from its own 40-yard line, the Patriots offense lines up in a three wide receiver set, with Gronkowski and running back Kevin Faulk in the backfield. The Steelers defense counters with a nickel package, consisting of three corners and three safeties.
Foote’s middle blitz is picked up by the center, but left outside linebacker Chris Carter’s twist forces Brady to leave his base. Once Brady leaves the pocket, the blocking breaks down, and he’s forced to run for his life. Gronkowski is wide open on the play, but Brady’s eyes are no longer looking downfield.
As previously mentioned, one of the keys to the defense will be giving multiple blitz looks. When that is done, it is harder for any quarterback to consistently identify which blitzers are coming and what passing lanes they can use. Here the heat from the left side prevents Brady from looking to his checkdown, Gronkowski, in the left flat.
The Steelers defense was able to neutralize Brady in 2011 by abandoning its traditional zone-blitz scheme in favor of press, man-to-man coverage. Pittsburgh also did an excellent job of disguising its blitzes, making it difficult for Brady to make pre-snap reads against various sub packages.
But simply implementing a great scheme won’t be enough to stop the Patriots’ spread-formation passing game on Thursday night. Executing coverages and applying pressure with four and five-man fronts will be paramount.
Brady enters this matchup with a 7-2 record against the Steelers. The four-time Super Bowl winner has made a living shredding Dick Lebeau’s vaunted zone blitz scheme. In both those two losses to Pittsburgh, 2004 and 2011, the Steelers employed tighter coverages than normal which frustrated Brady and the Patriots' offense; and both were years where the Patriots were at their best, making the Super Bowl in each season.
Butler has to get his defense to shorten time for Brady in the pocket and buy time for the Steelers' offense to build a substantial lead and control the game. Though there could be an entirely different plan he has in mind for Thursday night.
The first game in which the Steelers faced Tom Brady with a new defensive coordinator in Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh beat the defending Super Bowl champions in a major upset during Roethlisberger's rookie season.
Let's hope that a repeat of that is what we get to watch on Thursday night.