How many defensive backs does it take... (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Patriots couldn't seem to stop the Steelers on third down, no matter the scenario. We were making comments about how we were uneasy, even if the Steelers were on third and long and the Steelers always managed to convert. I've decided to break down two of the main third-and-long situations, how the play developed and how the coverage broke down. First, we'll be looking at the 3rd and 15 midway through the 3rd quarter, and then we'll be looking at the 3rd and 12 at the end of the 3rd quarter.
3rd and 15
The Steelers are facing third and long at mid-field. The Patriots are playing 3-3-5, with Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton, and Rob Ninkovich as the linebackers, and Antwaun Molden, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, and James Ihedigbo as the defensive backs.
The play is lined up so that both Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace turn to the center of the field when they make a cut in their route. Heath Miller (pink) runs as the outlet route to draw underneath coverage. The Patriots counter by having McCourty screen Wallace and he sits in the back pocket of Wallace the entire route. Rob Ninkovich is in place to take away the wheel route for Wallace. Guyton's role is to trace Sanders and make sure that no play in made in the middle of the field. Chung is supporting Molden on the far field and Ihedigbo is playing deep center.
The play finishes with Sanders making a completion between three defenders. Ihedigbo is playing extremely deep to take the top off a potential deep shot to Wallace, while Chung is helping Molden defend the in-route on the far field. How did all of this happen?
So here's a quick breakdown: Sanders will run down the hashmarks, while Wallace and Miller draw away defensive back coverage. The linebackers had been vulnerable all game (all season, really), and the Steelers wanted to create a mismatch. Guyton tries to trace Sanders, but turns his back to Sanders. Sanders stops his route and is in a pocket of the coverage.
As you can see, Chung and Molden are on the left side of the field in purple, with Molden in solid coverage, with Chung in support. Arrington is in orange and he's spying Heath Miller in case he breaks up the sideline. McCourty is sitting Wallace's hip in green, with Ninkovich standing in the passing lane. Spikes is blitzing up the middle, with a 1v1 block with a running back. Spikes creates quick pressure in order to prevent a play from developing. However, you can see Guyton's hips and body already turning to commit to a direction while covering Sanders.
Chung and Molden in the purple and Ninkovich and McCourty in the green are in lock down of Wallace. Ihedigbo should be running up to support coverage on Sanders, but is unsure of which direction Sanders will be running. You can see that Guyton has his back to Sanders and Sanders is stopping on a dime to break free from coverage. Spikes is still creating pressure so Ben Roethlisberger will have to make a quick throw.
The ball is in the air as Spikes breaks through the protection. However, Guyton and Ihedigbo are out of position to defend the ball, while McCourty and Ninkovich use their momentum from covering Wallace to make a tackle after Sanders and the Steelers convert the first down.
The Steelers had a pretty basic system on this play- draw the corners away from the middle of the field, while creating a mismatch with a linebacker in coverage. I feel like a better defense would have been Ninkovich falling into the flat to cover Heath Miller, while Guyton falls into underneath coverage of Wallace, and Arrington takes Sanders. There's no guarantee that would have prevented the conversion, but I believe the chances of a stop would have been greater. Still, the Steelers were no stranger to exploiting the linebackers and safeties in coverage.
3rd and 12
After the Patriots held the prior drive to a field goal, the Steelers got the ball back and were facing another third and long situation. The Patriots were in their 4-2-5 alignment (although Rob Ninkovich was one of the defensive ends. Call it what you want). Arrington, McCourty, and Chung are still on the field, but Sergio Brown has taken Ihedigbo's spot and Phillips Adams has taken over the slot position as Molden is off the field.
Here's a preview of the play. McCourty, Arrington, and Adams are playing man coverage. Brown blitzes up the middle (keep in mind that he's "blitzing" over 15 yards. That's an eternity), leaving Chung as the deep safety. I don't know if it's a scripted blitz or not, but Chung doesn't shift over to cover the middle of the field and stays on the far side.
The ball is snapped and Brown starts blitzing. It's kind of comical how far away he was when he blitzes. Chung is highlighted in orange because he could have/should have started sliding towards the middle of the field. Adams smothers his receiver, while Arrington and McCourty are in good position. The Patriots blitz with their front 6.
The ball is completed to Brown after he runs his "in" route to shake McCourty. Chung is not in the center of the field to make the play. Remind you of a route? Steelers convert for the first down.
Here's a different angle. See how far away Brown is blitzing from? Yeah.
Brown still looks so small. It reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the knights storm the castle. He's still forever away. However, this angle shows how evident the open space in the middle of the field is for Brown to run through. Chung definitely needs to slide over in this situation. Also, you can see that McCourty has his hips to the inside angle, which puts him a step behind when Brown cuts to the inside of the field.
The ball is in the air and Brown hasn't even made it to the line of scrimmage. Brown has his hand up, but can't hit the ball. Other Brown (Steelers receiver) has made his cut and is a step in front of McCourty. Chung recognizes the pass, but is too far over to make a move. This angle shows that Chung needs to be closer to the middle- he's helping Arrington defend the crossing pattern, but he's leaving McCourty out to dry. A step or two towards the middle would leave him still in position to help Arrington, while allowing him to potentially break-up or deter a pass to Brown.
Ball is completed. First down Steelers.
It's clear that the Patriots are struggling in the middle of the field. The linebackers can't cover and the safeties are struggling to do their job. The Steelers threw to their tight end or up the middle of the field with fantastic success. Pro Football Focus has Ben Roethlisberger throwing 23/32 up the middle of the field for 234 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. That's some focused passing.
The Patriots have even been managing to generate pressure on these third and long plays. It's the linebackers' inability to cover down field and poor safety play that has hurt the defense. Belichick stated that the play of his cornerbacks was not the top of his list of concerns. Hopefully the play of his safeties and linebackers is somewhere near the top.