The New England Patriots are facing a Pittsburgh Steelers team that lives and dies by the big play. The Steelers have 64 passing plays that gained 20+ yards, which ranks 4th in the NFL, and have allowed just 40 on defense, which ranks 3rd. The differential of +24 plays of 20+ yards leads the league.
The Patriots defense has allowed 53 passing plays of 20+ yards, tied for 10th worst in the league, and New England owns a big passing play differential of just +3. In order to win, the Patriots are going to try and shape the conference title game with short yardage plays on both sides of the ball.
“[The Steelers secondary is] aggressive, but they’re very intelligent in terms of when they take their chances, because they understand when the time is running out [on the quarterback] and they’ll make some educated decisions on when to take a few risks in the secondary,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “But, like I said before, they’ve given up very, very few big plays in the passing game all season, and so, to me, that’s a testament to how disciplined they are.
“They’re not going to give up many plays over their head, and even though you might say they do make some plays on the ball and they are aggressive, you’ve got to be careful with how much you’re trying to risk in terms of holding onto it and doing all of those kinds of things, because you’ve got to deal with their blitz zones, their different types of pressures inside, and then just their straight four-man rush.
“You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to be patient, and like I said, this is as disciplined and as patient of a group on defense, and they’re going to play the very same way this week. They’re not going to make many mistakes; they’re not going to give you many opportunities to have easy yards. You’re going to have to earn everything you get. Like I said, it’ll be a great challenge.”
The Patriots are going to try and use the Steelers aggression against them by forcing them to bite on the play-action. While the Patriots don’t generate the most 20+ yard passing plays in the league, no team hits a home run more than the Patriots; the New England offense leads the league with 30 passing plays of 30+ yards. Look for WR Julian Edelman and WR Chris Hogan to try and make plays down the field, while RB Dion Lewis and RB James White should receive a few wheel routes of their own.
But for most of the game, the Steelers want to use their blitzes to force QB Tom Brady to get rid of the ball quickly and to prevent the Patriots from having enough time to throw down the field. Brady has always had success against the Steelers defense because he’s quick to diagnose the blitz and find the open receiver. If Brady can combine that quick read with a few big play-action passes, then the New England offense is going to thrive against the disciplined Steelers defense.