Whether you like it or not, the New England Patriots are good. And, whether or not you believe they do it by legitimate means, there is nothing likely to change about it. They're good, and very effective at doing offense the way they do it. The best any team can do, then, is find a way to counter it.
For better or worse, the easiest way to start finding a counter to anything the Patriots do on offense is to accept one very simple truth: the Patriots offense goes as the offensive line goes.
That can usually be said for just about any offense. But it may be a surprising revelation when we are talking about an offense led by a guy many believe to be one of the three best to ever play the game in Tom Brady. The bottom line, though, is that the Patriots are only as good as their offensive line.
The Patriots have a very, very disciplined line in 2016.
They aren't just good in one phase of the offense or the other. They are athletic and quick, and can block in the first and second levels with ease in the run game, and are some of the best out there when it comes to protecting their quarterback.
In this first play, we see just how capable they are when blocking for their running backs, even when their backs are against their own goal line.
What springs this play is the great work on the right side, specifically by #69 Shaq Mason, who gets in on a double-team before he moves to the second level and gets the key block. Mason clears the hole just enough for Blount to make his cut and bounce outside.
That doesn't happen, though, if left guard Joe Thuney doesn't peel off his initial block and stone linebacker Vontaze Burfict. And let's give credit where it's due: running back LeGarrette Blount does an excellent job of waiting patiently for the hole to develop before he starts moving downhill.
In the end, the play was good for 15 yards, thanks also to the outside block by receiver Julian Edelman.
But as I said before, this team goes as the offensive line goes. Sometimes, they don't do things perfectly, or even very well at all. These mistakes are rare, though.
What makes this play happen is, really, defensive tackle Pat Sims going Pure Pamplona, showing bull-like anger and strength to get into the backfield to disrupt Brady's timing. Mason, who was the hero of our previous play, was the goat here, as he was simply abused by Sims and is never able to recover. As Sims gets clear of the offensive line, Brady chooses to abandon the pocket. The final straw, though, is when defensive end Carlos Dunlap uses a great last-minute push to shove right tackle Marcus Cannon directly into Brady's escape route, making Brady try cutting back outside. By that point, though, that hiccup's worth of hesitation is enough to allow Sims to wrap Brady up for the sack.
For every one of those negative plays in the passing game, though, there are about 50 that go decidedly in favor of the Patriots. Our final play shows what happens when everything goes right. Not perfect. Just right. And that's about all you can ever ask for in the NFL.
In this four-man rush, only one defensive player ever has a shot at getting to Brady. Sims makes a strong initial move to his left and actually has Mason beat. There is contact between their legs, and it does look -- at least a little bit -- like Mason is legitimately trying to trip Sims once he knows he is beat. Even so, the move is subtle and isn;t terribly obvious at full speed, so it's understandable that it would be missed. It was probably a trip and probably should have been a penalty, but it wasn't.
And...that was it. Defensive end Michael Johnson? Nothing. Defensive tackle Domata Peko? Zilch. Dunlap? Nothing doing. No one is withing ten feet of Brady when he throws. Given that kind of room, and a tight end line Rob Gronkowski, there is little chance of a bad throw or a dropped catch on this play.
Can the Patriots be beaten? Absolutely. It hasn't happened much over the last 15 years, but it does happen. In that time, they have consistently had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, not to mention one of the most disciplined. That's true about every player group on this team.
But, if a team can generate consistent pressure, history has shown that Brady will make mistakes, or will pull down the ball and take a sack. That's going to be hard for a Steelers team that is missing defensive end Cameron Heyward and linebacker Bud Dupree. It's going to be an uphill battle for the Steelers, for sure.
But history has shown that it can be done. At the very least, that's as good a place as any to start.