As the Patriots prepare to travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a match-up that will feature the two best records in the AFC, lets take a quick look back at some of the things that the Patriots were able to do effectively in their 39-26 victory last season:
Patriots Find a Way to Run
Heading into the match-up last year, the Steelers had by far the NFL's best run defense (heading into the game, the longest run given up by the Steelers was 14 yards). However, the Patriots ran a multitude of stacked two-tight end sets with Alge Crumpler essentially used as an extra tackle. Green-Ellis picked up 87 total yards with 66 of them coming in the second half. What does this mean for this Sunday? While the Steelers are only 12th in the league in rush defense, I expect the Patriots to use Nate Solder as an extra blocking tight end (if Vollmer is healthy) and pound the ball down the Steelers throats once again.
Passing Offense Clicks on All Levels: Brady, Gronkowski, and Protection.
Rob Gronkowski had a coming out day of sorts, snagging in five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns following his worst professional game the week before against the Browns. Tom Brady was instrumental in what I described at the time as a "defining" victory for the Patriots club. Here's what I wrote last November:
On offense, the Patriots had their best overall performance of the year. Tom Brady had his best game of the year, much of the credit due to the pass protection, which was nearly flawless. With all day to throw, Brady was patient and consistently found the holes in the defense. In addition, Brady also looked down field. Instead of looking for a lot of throws in the 5-7 yard area, Brady first looked to the 11-20+ area, and actually took some shots down the field (one of which resulted in a big completion to receiver Brandon Tate).
The Patriots will once again need to protect Brady, as they are playing the NFL's leading pass defense - a unit that has tallied 17 sacks on the season.
Rest of the review and conclusions after the jump!
Patriots Shut Down Steelers Ground Attack
While the Steelers are only 14th in the league on the ground, with Rashard Mendenhall averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, they can still run it down the throat of a defense and the Patriots will need to stop the running attack. Last year, the Patriots did a pretty solid job of that - limiting Steelers running backs to just 64 yards on 15 attempts. Ron Brace, Vince Wilfork, and Brandon Deaderick were all key players in stopping the Steelers ground attack. While the Patriots did play a lot of the game in sub-packages, they were able to stop the ground when needed. Aside from one 34 yard run, Mendenhall had just 16 yards on 10 carries.
Throughout last year's game, Patriots cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington struggled to cover Steelers receiver Mike Wallace consistently. Here's what Richard Hill wrote on the subject of containing Wallace after last year's game:
Wallace is a burner receiver and was able to take advantage of the Patriots' coverage. Kyle Arrington, normally the player asked to cover the speedy receivers, was unable to control Wallace as the Steelers' receiver found pockets in the coverage down field. Devin McCourty also looked rough in coverage of Wallace just because of his inability to keep pace with Wallace. While the secondary was bailed out because of the fantastic pressure by the front seven, the Patriots need to figure out a way to contain such talented and fast players like Wallace.
Clearly, containing Wallace, the Steelers most dynamic offensive weapon, needs to be a priority for the Patriots heading into this year's re-match. Expect Wallace to see a lot of safety help over the top as the Patriots do whatever they can to contain him.
Patriots Get to Ben Roethlisberger
While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did rack up 387 yards and three touchdowns, most of those numbers came in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were essentially playing prevent. The Patriots contained the Steelers passing attack for three quarters of the game, with a big credit due to a pass rush that produced five sacks. They used a lot of exotic blitzes out of sub-packages to create pressure on Roethlisberger, a strategy that the team could re-visit this year, especially considering that the Steelers have allowed 20 sacks and are -9 in their turnover ratio.
Last year, the Patriots came out and had a defining victory against a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that ended up earning a first round bye and representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. If the Patriots can produce a similar plan to produce pressure and shut down the run on defense, while controlling the physical nature of the game on offense, they should find success against the 'Burgh yet again in 2011.