New England Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia often preaches patience with his linemen, particularly as it relates to the run game. Keep doing you job, he’ll say. Eventually one run will break through the defense. With that same approach, the Patriots knew that they would break down the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in the AFC Championship Game.
It was just a matter of when.
The Steelers 3-4 defense is predictable in its playbook, but also in its utilization of personnel. They hate to rotate players and that can leave defenders gassed and exposed late in games. In three playoff games, the Steelers four starting linebackers of Ryan Shazier (100.0%), Lawrence Timmons (100.0%), Bud Dupree (98.0%), and James Harrison (87.9%) played almost every snap. QB Tom Brady and the Patriots used that to their advantage.
“They did a really good job of just keeping us kind of off balance with the tempo,” Steelers S Mike Mitchell said. “Tom’s elite. Every time we weren’t on the guy in the flat he was able to find it and when we weren’t pressuring he was very poised and patient. Did a good job finding the open man.”
Knowing that the Steelers weren’t going to substitute at linebacker, the Patriots used an uptempo offense to exhaust the defenders and to wear them down late in the game. The 74 snaps were a far cry from the 57 snaps by the Patriots back in week 7 and Brady knew exactly how he wanted to distribute the ball.
Almost half (15 of 32) of Brady’s completions came with Steelers linebackers in coverage, according to the Herald’s Jeff Howe, with Brady’s receivers picking up 160 yards. WR Julian Edelman, in particular, collected 5 catches for 84 yards against linebackers in coverage.
“They out-executed us,” Steelers LB James Harrison said. “They did not out-physical us, they did not push us around, they out-executed us. They sped up the tempo and did what they had to do to win.”
In the first half, the Patriots built up a 17-9 lead over the course of 33 offensive plays. Brady completed 79.2% of his passes for 222 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the Steelers defense limited RB LeGarrette Blount to just 4 yards on 5 carries, an ugly 0.80 yards per carry rate with two carries for negative yards.
In the second half, the Patriots called 38 plays and Brady continued on his incredibly efficient pace. What was more important for the Patriots was Blount’s emergence in the second half as the Patriots running back picked up 43 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries- a 3.91 yards per carry rate that far exceeded his first half production (and one that was actually better than the number suggests, because 5 of his carries came in short yardage situations).
The Steelers defense broke in the second half as the Patriots scored 19 unanswered points thanks to the uptempo approach. The Patriots knew exactly how they wanted to beat the Steelers, and it worked to perfection.