A lot went right for the Steelers Sunday evening against the New England Patriots, and a lot went wrong. Much has been said, of course, about the questionable sequence of events that ended the game: overturning a call without irrefutable proof, timeouts, fake spikes, a bad throw and an uncalled hold of the intended receiver on the game’s deciding play. I’m not going to focus on what has already been beaten to death.
Instead, I’d like to zero in on those moments that showed what the Steelers are capable of down the final stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, especially with the expected returns of cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Vance McDonald.
It was great to see the running game return to form after five straight weeks of churning out yards merely by ramming into the line again and again for short gains.
Martavis Bryant making difficult catches was fantastic. He’s been chided all year for appearing to run half speed and not try for catches that don’t hit him in the hands. But he laid out for a sideline grab and one-handed a touchdown while being interfered with (and it went uncalled, of course).
But one of the biggest moments of the game was watching the inside linebackers work in tandem, along with pressure from the interior defensive line, to force the Steelers’ first interception of Tom Brady since 2005.
The Patriots are lined up in an empty set, in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). The back, James White, is split wide to the left, with Rob Gronkowski in the left slot. All three wide receivers are to the right: Danny Amendola is nearest to the right guard, Brandin Cooks in the middle, and Phillip Dorsett split wide.
Defensively, the Steelers are in Cover-1 with Nickel personnel, with cornerbacks Artie Burns, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton manned up with Amendola, Cooks and Dorsett, respectively. Strong safety Sean Davis is on Gronkowski, and Vince Williams is covering White. Free safety Mike Mitchell is the deep safety.
Here, though, is where this gets interesting and downright frightening: White is split wide, so at first glance it appears that Williams drew the short straw and had to somehow cover a wide receiver. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Finally, on the defensive side, recently reacquired inside linebacker Sean Spence was the zone linebacker in the hole.
This play demonstrate two very interesting things. First, it showed the team finally has the personnel to play man-to-man in both the base 3-4 defense, as well as in Nickel. the return this week of Joe Haden is only going to bolster that, as he immediately returns to his spot as CB1a along with Burns. Hilton’s ability in man coverage is adequate while Sutton is very good for a rookie with three games’ worth of pro experience. They can legitimately play straight man coverage, even with Dime personnel. That’s a very, very big deal with the playoffs rapidly approaching.
The second thing this play shows is that the inside linebackers can seamlessly swap responsibilities, even in the middle of the play — because that’s exactly what had to happen, and was one of the three keys to the interception.
Before the snap, White motions toward the ball from his split wide to the left. The snap comes as White gets to about a step behind and to the left of Gronkowski. This stacks Williams and Davis, in an effort to force Williams to move behind Davis at the snap and creating instant separation. This almost happens, but Williams changes his mind at the last second and lets Gronkowski and Davis run by him. It was the exact right decision.
Cooks takes off on a “Go” route, and Hilton is a little slow to get his hips around due to a subtle double-move by Cooks. Once they both get up to speed, Hilton keeps up stride for stride, but Cooks has about a one-yard advantage on him.
So, what happens here is Mitchell has to stay deep initially, to bracket Cooks. Fortunately, the pressure didn’t allow this play to develop cleanly, because Cooks had Hilton beaten well enough on the deep route. The overall effect, and almost certainly by design, is that Mitchell has to come away from Gronkowski.
The massive tight end runs about a 10-yard dig route, but his clunky break prevents him from getting really good separation.
While this is happening, White is running a drag route underneath. This is where is almost goes very, very bad.
Williams has to split Amendola and Burns, who are coming on a drag in the opposite direction. There is contact between the two defenders, and Burns ends up on the ground. Fortunately, Brady was pretty much staring down Gronkowski, almost from the beginning of the play, even though that’s something the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback allegedly never does.
At the same time all of this is happening, nose tackle Javon Hargrave is absolutely having his way with right guard Shaq Mason, while defensive end Stephon Tuitt is getting uncomfortably close to Brady on a speed rush around left tackle Nate Solder. This pressure forces Brady to throw without properly setting his feet. Because his hips are opened up to where he wants to throw, he is unable to get enough torque on the ball and throws it over top of White, but well short of Gronkowski.
The third and final key to this interception -- the coverage swap between Williams and Spence — is occurring as White is crossing the spot where the ball was snapped. As Spence takes over the coverage on White, Williams drops back about a yard and begins looking into the backfield, where he sees Brady winding up to throw. He’s able to impose himself into the ball’s path and get a hand on it, batting it to himself for the pick.
This play was clearly designed to go to Gronkowski against a single high safety. The “Go” by Cooks to keep Mitchell deep and Brady staring his tight end down are dead giveaways. The Steelers played this one about as well as can be expected, but these are the types of plays we feared might be missing with Shazier done for at least the remainder of the 2017 season. It’s nice to see that Williams and Spence are already developing a rapport that allows them to make a seamless transition like this one, and it’s good to know the rest of the defense is up to the man-coverage challenge.