Judging by the final score of 36-17, the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers looks like a lopsided affair. And while it turned out to be that way in the second half, it was not quite that early on.
Despite New England jumping to a 10-0 lead, the Steelers were able to answer with a touchdown and, down 17-6, threatened to make it a one-possession game late in the first half. They seemingly did but a Pittsburgh touchdown was overturned when tight end Jesse James was ruled down by contact at the 1-yard line.
Still, the team put itself in a prime position to cut into its deficit. The Patriots defense, on the other hand, was forced to make a goal line stand to avoid seeing momentum shift to the Steelers. And make a goal line stand is just what they did.
Let’s take a look at the film to analyze how they were able to accomplish it.
1) 1-1-NE 1 (1:53) C.Hubbard reported in as eligible. D.Williams left guard to NE 2 for -1 yards (D.Hightower; P.Chung).
With the football placed at the half yard-line, the Steelers opened in a heavy set with six offensive linemen and three tight ends on the field. Before the snap, Jesse James (#81) motioned from the fullback spot to the left end of the line, where David Johnson (#82) ultimately also joined him:
Free safety Devin McCourty (#32) was in man coverage and also moved to the offense’s left side when Johnson did. The Patriots’ defense, playing a cover 0 scheme, countered Pittsburgh’s alignment with six down-linemen, two safeties and three linebackers; two of which playing off the line of scrimmage:
Once the football was snapped right guard David DeCastro (#66) was used as a pull blocker to the left side. This, in turn, created six one-on-one matchups along the line of scrimmage from tackle eligible Chris Hubbard (#74) on the left to right-side tight end Xavier Grimble (#85):
While the Steelers failed to get substantial initial push on the interior, DeCastro pulling over, would have put them in a good position on the strong side of the formation. Running back DeAngelo Williams (#34) was headed this way as well but ultimately failed to even reach the line of scrimmage.
DeCastro’s pull block, as noted above, created one-on-one matchups along the line. However, this left safety Patrick Chung (#23) unaccounted for off the right-side edge. As soon as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (#7) handed the ball off to Williams, Chung began chasing down the running back, whose blocking did not yet materialize.
While James was able to move McCourty to the inside, Johnson could not do the same with edge defender Shea McClellin (#58). This clogged a potential gap between the two Pittsburgh tight ends and left DeCastro and by extension Williams in a position unable to maneuver through:
With Williams having to slow down, Chung was able to get to him and wrap him around his thighs; slowing him down enough for linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54) to finish the tackle for a loss of one yard:
Despite no success funning the football on 1st down, the Steelers went back to the running game on the very next play – and the results were equally impressive for the Patriots defense.
2) 2-2-NE 2 (1:50) C.Hubbard reported in as eligible. D.Williams up the middle to NE 5 for -3 yards (V.Valentine).
Facing 2nd and goal from the 2-yard line, the Steelers used the same personell group it employed on the previous play. The only difference from an alignment-standpoint was the three tight ends lining up differently:
The Patriots also used the same personnel group and cover 0 scheme but showed a run blitz with linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52) moving up over the center:
When the ball was snapped, Pittsburgh’s offensive line made multiple crucial mistakes leading to the Patriots once again stopping Williams short of the sticks.
The first came on the right side of the line of scrimmage, where tackle Marcus Gilbert (#77) was going up against Alan Branch (#97). Just like he did on 1st down, Gilbert was trying to slow down Branch by using a low block. However, the veteran defensive tackle, who originally aligned over Gilbert’s inside shoulder, countered perfectly: He simply attacked the outside shoulder to get past the blocking attempt:
Before the football was even handed off, Branch was already in the backfield. Yet, he did not make the tackle as fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (#99) was even faster to get to the ball carrier.
Valentine originally lined up inside of Branch, playing a 1-technique over right guard DeCastro’s left shoulder. DeCastro never blocked Valentine though. At the snap, he pulled around behind center Maurkice Pouncey (#53) to get to the second level. While he succeeded at doing so, this left Pouncey with two players – Roberts and Valentine – to block.
The Pro Bowl center engaged Roberts, who aligned right over him, but unsurprisingly failed to account for Valentine. With DeCastro moving up the field through the left-side A-gap, the rookie defensive tackle was left unblocked:
While Branch and Valentine were able to move into the backfield, defensive end Jabaal Sheard (#93) was also able to beat his blocker, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (#78), with a well-executed swim move to the outside. Even if the two defensive tackles had been unable to stop Williams, Sheard would have been there. He was not needed, though, as Valentine was able to wrap up the runner for another loss of yardage:
Stopping Williams behind the line of scrimmage on a second straight play altered how the Steelers approached 3rd down. But while the plan changed, the result did not.
3) 3-5-NE 5 (1:47) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short right to E.Rogers.
Pittsburgh used 11-personnel on its 3rd down play, with Roethlisberger in the shotgun and Williams lined up to his left. Wide receiver Antonio Brown (#84) was flanked out wide to the left, while fellow wideout Eli Rogers (#17) moved across the formation to form a three-man bunch on the right side:
New England countered in a light dime formation with six defensive backs in man-coverage, three defensive linemen and two linebackers. At the snap, the latter five players all attacked the pocket. With Brown double-covered by Malcolm Butler (#21) and Duron Harmon (#30), the other defensive backs all faced one-on-one matchups.
Defensive backs Logan Ryan (#26) and Eric Rowe (#25) were originally on coverage of Rodgers and Sammie Coates (#14), respectively. However, when Rogers motioned to the other side of the formation, the two cornerbacks switched their responsibilities. After the game, Rowe noted that he and Ryan gave each other a hand signal to make the change:
Nothing verbal. We just have a little signal out. Just real slight. You don't want to make it too obvious because then the receivers know, the quarterback knows, and then maybe they change. We just do a real slight signal where they can't catch it and then play the play from there.
As can be seen, Rowe tips his hand just slightly to signal the change in coverage responsibilities:
This, in turn, allowed the two cornerbacks to avoid getting caught in a potential pick by the receivers’ crossing routes:
Ultimately, Roethlisberger missed his intended target – Rogers – by throwing off target. But even if he had made the connection, the wide receiver would have had a hard time finding the endzone with Rowe right on him.
Despite being backed up initially, the Patriots played this defensive series as well as they could. They countered the Steelers’ plans perfectly, took care of their assignments and on three straight plays executed to perfection. Thus, the team was able to stop Pittsburgh not only from coming within one score but also from heading into halftime with momentum on its side.