Despite the close score, it never felt as if the Patriots' defense was in the game against the Steelers. The Patriots have dropped back down to 30th in the league in 3rd down defense and it's important to see why in order to fix those issues. I went through the game tape and took quick notes based upon what I saw. It's apparent what the weakness of the defense is, although the answer might surprise you.
At the beginning of the season, heck, even before the draft, if you were to ask me which position on the team was the most solidified for the upcoming season, I would have said the inside linebacker spot. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton, and Dane Fletcher looked to create the strongest unit on defense. Injuries to Mayo and Fletcher have taken them off the field and, as a result, the strongest unit on the team has become the weak link. The Steelers attacked the linebackers the entire game and were able to effortlessly move the chains.
Brandon Spikes is not regarded as a strong coverage linebacker. It seems as if the defensive schemes have tried to write Spikes out of coverage and into the pass rush. However, this create gaping holes in the defense where opposing teams can capitalize for big gains.
Let's look at the third down attempts and we'll recap afterwards.
1st: Guyton and Spikes the LBs, Spikes steps up to threaten Ben, Heath Miler runs (unjammed) to vacated zone. First Down.
2nd: Pats rush 6 with zero LBs in middle of field. Miller runs (unjammed) to wide open space for a quick dump off. There are literally four receivers open as they all cut to the inside where there are no LBs. First Down.
3rd: For the TD, pick n roll with Arrington getting impeded by Chung. Spikes blitzes Ben, Ben throws into Spikes vacant space. Touchdown.
4th: 3rd and 5, Pats have 6 in the box, 1 LB drops to middle zone, NB/DB are 5 yards off, CBs are 11 yards off. Arrington with huge cushion. First Down.
5th: 3rd/3. 3/3/5. Nink "Harbaugh" taps Miller's back, he runs in front of Spikes. One move and he's free with no defenders near him. First Down.
6th: Goal line stop, forced a field goal, Great coverage and prevention of routes developing in the end zone. deterred Ben from throw. Stop.
7th: 17 yds. Guyton makes the interception. 3/3/5, Carter as a DE. Heads up grab by Guyton, wasn't much pressure on Ben. Stop.
8th: 4yd. Red zone. Poor communication, Molden pass Brown to Arrington, Brown runs back to Molden zone. Molden deep thinking Arrington has Brown.Touchdown.
9th: Mendenhall ran it. CBS showed it as a 1st down run. Guyton and Love get blown off line. First Down.
10th: 15yd. Guyton/Nink in coverage. Everyone drops to 1st down marker, Guyton picks up, turns his back to Sanders who stops on a dime. Nink wasn't in coverage of Sanders, but dropped back in coverage. Nink was in underneath zone of Wallace, with McCourty over top. Example of huge pocket exploited as LBs continue to struggle in coverage. First Down.
11th: 3yd. Red zone (3 of last 5 3rd downs in red zone. Steelers moving chains on first and second). Ben makes bad throw w/o pressure. Defense is able to take away pockets in end zone, leaves place open underneath and away from the goal line.Stop.
12th: 12yd. Sergio Brown runs from 15 yards deep to "pressure" Ben. Vacates a zone for A. Brown to cut inside. Sim play to Dez vs DMC. Seriously, don't know why Sergio did that. He had no way of getting close to Ben and just completely opened up the first down. First Down.
13th**: 5yd. Red zone (4 of last 7 3rd downs have been in RZ), force a false start to set up 10 yards to go.
13th: 10yd. Ben with a quick slant. Good coverage by the Pats, McCourty makes a sound tackle to stop the receiver. Stop.
14th: 3yd. Defense creates pressure, forces Ben to throw it up and the receiver is not on the same page. Stop.
15th: 1yd. Run by Redman. Love gets wedged down, Warren pushed over Love, Steelers run towards them and barely get the first. First Down.
16th: 22yd. Pats do not drop to first down (instead press closer to receiver) and defensive line has enough time to sack Ben. Stop.
So here are some base statistics from these 16 plays:
Conversions were allowed because:
2 due to blitzes opening zones (Brown, Spikes),
6 due to empty zones,
2 due to Steelers running on 3rd and 1.
As a result, most third downs weren't about bad tackles- it was a result of forced mismatches by the Steelers offense and by taking advantage of Patriots blitzes.
It's interesting to note that despite the Patriots weak cornerbacks, very few attempts to convert were on the outside. Most involved the seam, or In routes against linebackers in coverage. In fact, five of the defensive stops were due to solid coverage and stops by the secondary. In attempts directed towards the secondary, the Patriots stopped five of eight attempts, with one of the conversions due to the safety Sergio Brown blitzes and vacating his position. So while there is definite room for improvement at the cornerback position, they were far from the issue on 3rd down.
The flip side is that the Steelers were successful on seven of eight attempts against the linebackers, with the one mistake being the Guyton interception. It's clear that the Patriots must find a way to force receivers out of the middle of the field and towards the cornerbacks.
The follow players converted on third down for the Steelers:
Pass: Heath Miller 3/3, Mewelde Moore 1/1, Jerricho Cotchery 1/1, Emmanuel Sanders 1/2, Antonio Brown 2/5 conversion (3/5 completion, Devin McCourty made a stop)
Run: Rashard Mendenhall 1/1, Isaac Redman 1/1
The Steelers offense did a good job spreading the ball to make sure the Patriots couldn't hone in on one specific player to smother on third down.
Some other "fun" facts:
5/16 3rd down plays came in the Red Zone.
The Steelers threw on 3rd down 14/16 times
Of the six 3rd down stops, 4 resulted in FG attempts, 1 was Guyton's INT, and 1 was punt with 18 seconds left.
More fun: the punt happened after Ben Roethlisberger had been sacked on two consecutive plays for -19 yards- which means that the Steelers had been in position for 5 field goal attempts.
Most fun: Oh, and that interception saw Gary Guyton return it to the opposite Red Zone. Yeah- all six stops involved the ball being in field goal position.
It's clear the Patriots must find a way to improve their third down defense and it's not fair to point all the fingers at the thin cornerback position. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had a great day, but a lot of the production was against the linebackers and the safeties. For some reason, the Patriots stopped jamming the tight end (Heath Miller) at the line and he had a monstrous first drive. Hopefully, the defense can find a solution quickly. The defense took a huge step step backwards against the Steelers, there's no doubt about it.
Hopefully these problems will be addressed.