The Pittsburgh Steelers will attempt to do something they've only been able to do twice in the last 13 seasons: win a football game in which Tom Brady is playing. There are a myriad of avenues the Steelers can take to accomplish this task, but one key to victory for the Steelers is to focus on not playing too conservative on offense.
Mike Tomlin is famous for insisting the Steelers won't "live in their fears", but sometimes the Steelers' offensive play calls do just that. For instance, on last week's opening drive against the Chiefs the Steelers came out on fourth and goal to attempt to draw the Chiefs offsides, but settled for a field goal. That can't happen this week. The Steelers have an explosive offense and need to take it to the Patriots. The worst case scenario is that they force the Patriots to drive a long field for points.
The Patriots lost one game this year when Tom Brady returned from his suspension, a 31-24 thriller against the Seahawks that came down to the final possession. In that game, Seattle made several calculated risks that paid off.
At the end of the first half the Seahawks had the ball at the Patriots’ ten yard line and 13 seconds left. Instead of settling for a field goal and using the time to get an easier kick, Seattle threw to the end zone and were rewarded for their efforts with a touchdown.
Instead of heading into the half with a 15-14 lead, they went in up 19-14 with momentum. However, they weren't done gambling.
With four minutes to go in the game, Seattle took the lead with a touchdown to put them up 31-24. Instead of settling for the 32-24 lead, Seattle went for two, but failed. At first glance this seemed confusing. Why go for two points when a PAT already makes the Patriots need to score a touchdown and go for two themselves? The answer is because if it had worked, even if New England scored a touchdown and a successful two point conversation, the Patriots would still have to recover an onside kick and attempt a field goal, all with under four minutes on the clock.
Seattle essentially was hoping for an insurance plan if New England scored. Alas, Seattle didn't score the two post conversion, but they were still in decent standing to win because Pete Carroll understood something about most football coaches. In general, most coaches, even revolutionary ones like Bill Belichick, tend to be conservative in crunch time situations. The Seahawks were still up seven points, so even if New England scored, they were more likely to settle for sending the kicker on for the PAT than going for two themselves to win the game in regulation.
The Steelers don't need to be that aggressive, but rather than let New England dictate the game, the Steelers should take the game to them. This is especially true early in the game when the Steelers can take the crowd and their energy out of the stadium, and still have plenty of game left to make up for any mistakes if their aggressive play backfires.
For example, if the Steelers face a fourth and goal on their opening possession on Sunday, they should go for it. And if they score, they should go for two. If it works they quiet a restless crowd. If it doesn't work, they force the Patriots to cover 90 or more yards and the Steelers will have three and a half quarters to make up for it.
The Steelers have a young defense and could potentially be without James Harrison, who is nursing an injury. It's understandable that the coaches might be afraid of leaving the unit in a compromised position. On the other hand, for years the Steelers have seen the Patriots crush their dreams. Last time these two teams met in the playoffs the Patriots blew the doors off the Steelers. It's been 13 long years for a rematch, and with a berth to the Super Bowl on the line there's no reason the Steelers can't dig deep into the playbook and throw everything they have at their biggest AFC nemesis.