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Pass coverage gaffes help doom the Steelers against the Patriots

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Mistakes happen, but against the machine-like offense of the New England Patriots, mistakes can be hazardous. The Steelers learned that the hard way in the AFC Championship Game.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

“What happened?”

If you are a Steelers fan, you have endured that question about a hundred times since Sunday night’s debacle of an AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, from friends, family, co-workers and maybe even total strangers. It’s a tough question, because at first glance, it looks like the problems were just bad game-planning and slow execution.

While those are definitely components of what led to the lopsided defeat at the hands of the Patriots, a lot of it can be boiled down to a failure to cover receivers. And, as obvious as that sounds, the causes and culprits might surprise you.

1st Quarter, 2:55 Remaining, 3rd & 10

If you only watch the secondary on this play, it looks awful for the Steelers. It looks especially bad for safety Robert Golden, who appears to be the guy responsible covering receiver Chris Hogan. That would be a fair assessment, but Golden didn’t do anything that linebackers Bud Dupree and James Harrison also did: he followed quarterback Tom Brady’s eyes.

It’s a standard technique in zone coverage, but it’s one that a savvy quarterback can defeat fairly easily. In this case, Brady shows his mastery of the art.

He doesn’t just look to the left. He begins on Hogan, and immediately moves to the opposite side of the field, and lingers there for what seemed like forever against the Steelers’ four-man rush. While doing so, he even sells the left side of the field by side stepping repeatedly to his left, ostensibly to get away from pass rushers and get a clear passing lane to his receivers on the left. Harrison, Dupree and Golden all drift to the offensive left in lock-step with Brady. That’s when Hogan breaks free of the coverage, but goes unseen by Golden, who has his eyes locked on Brady. The quarterback then turns and points to Hogan, and fires a laser beam to him for six points.

2nd Quarter, 7:54 Remaining, 1st & 10

New England reached deep into their bag of tricks for one that is used around the entire NFL just a handful of times each season, because it requires a lengthy setup. First, you have to have been successful throwing the ball to draw the linebackers and safeties away from the line so they can’t get to the running back before he pitches the ball back to the quarterback. Second, you need to sell the run hard to get the safeties and linebackers rumbling downhill. Third, your quarterback has to get the throw out of his hands as quickly as possible after receiving the pitch from the runner, to prevent the safeties from recovering and making up lost ground. This positioning is a delicate balance, and hard to set up just right.

For the Patriots, everything came together exactly that way. The short and medium passes underneath caused the Steelers to switch from cover-2 to cover-1 and rolled rookie Sean Davis up to just a few yards off the ball, but clearly in coverage. At the handoff, Davis initially backpedals along with Hogan, but spots the run and starts to attack the line. At the same time, single high safety Mike Mitchell sees the handoff and also sells out to the run. After the pitch, he recovers before Hogan gets past him, but his momentum in the exact wrong direction took time to stop, and Hogan blew by for the easy touchdown. It is exactly this end result that the flea-flicker is designed to cause, and it worked to perfection.

3rd Quarter, 5:03 Remaining, 1st & 10

This final play does not result ion a touchdown, but it’s a solid example of the kinds of coverage assignment issues the Steelers experienced Sunday night.

Before the snap and even just after it, Artie Burns is frantically pointing at New England fullback James Develin, trying to get James Harrison to keep an eye on him. Whether Harrison didn’t see him, or simply tried to do too much, is irrelevant. What matters here is that the assignment was blown, and it’s proof that even someone of Harrison’s experience can make a mistake now and then. I just pity the poor guy who has to be the one to tell him.

When the play begins, Harrison actually begins drifting toward Develin, but turns back inside and covers the slot receiver, instead. Unfortunately, Harrison’s assignment here is the short zone on the offensive left. Cornerback Artie Burns is supposed to cover the deep zone behind Harrison, and Davis is responsible for the short-to-intermediate seam with deep help behind him.

It all breaks down when Harrison moves back inside. Davis sees the pass to Develin and, without Harrison in the way, could have gotten to him for the stop after a short gain. But Harrison’s positioning forces Davis to run to Harrison’s inside, then make a hard right in order to get outside to Develin, and what could have been held to a five-yard gain ends up being 14.

Fixing these three issues wouldn’t have changed the result of Sunday night’s game, because the Steelers simply didn’t appear to want to win as badly as the Patriots did. But these mistakes were the kind that are easily preventable. Fortunately, they are also easily fixed. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for the 2017 to see the fruits of the defense’s labor toward that end.