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AFC Championship game plan revisited

Revisiting the game plan for the Patriots and if how successful they were at achieving each point of emphasis.

As judged by the 36-17 score, the Patriots would be able to execute the points of emphasis I lined out the day before the game. The keys were to take away their top two threats Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and make the Steelers move the ball with other guys. The Patriots offense was relentless against the Steelers defense with 4 touchdowns and 3 field goals, while only punting twice all night. The defense held an explosive offense to 17 points, forced two turnovers, and got a pair of goal-line stops with the first one setting the tone for the second half.

Limit Bell and Brown: A groin injury sidelined Bell, although the Patriots game plan of controlling the line of scrimmage still worked after he left the game. Steelers ran for only 2.7 yards per carry for the entire game, as most runs ended with very little gains save for one big 15-yard run that Williams had before the Patriots eventually adjusted to. The Patriots did a good job of turning Antonio Brown’s game, despite not getting much pressure at all as the Patriots utilized a mush rush against Ben Roethlisberger. Bell and Brown combined for under 100 yards for the game and the Steelers missed them. Malcolm Butler did yeoman’s work on Brown, who only caught 2 passes on 4 targets for 24 yards, although the game plan of utilizing a safety over the top was the key reason why Butler could play aggressively.

Activate Blount Force: Raw numbers wise, Blount didn’t have a good game as he averaged 3 yards a carry. Blount’s first 7 runs went for a combined 2 yards, but the Patriots up-tempo offense eventually wore down the Steelers.

The significance of that split is on Blount’s 8th and 9th carries of the game, he did this:

Finishing the game with 9 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown, including getting the final 13 yards to run out the clock on the Patriots final possession. Overall, not a great day running the ball, but they did OK in certain situations.

Use misdirection: The Patriots ran only 1 misdirection type play all game long and it was a 34-yard TD pass to Chris Hogan on a flea-flicker. Hogan does a good job of selling himself as a run blocker before running past the Steelers defense that clearly bit on the run. That wasn’t Hogan’s only highlight either:

Move players around to force defense to declare coverage: Brady had no problems slicing up the Steelers. One point he managed to get Hogan matched up on James Harrison on a seam route, another the Steelers left James Develin wide open despite lining up as a wideout after the shift. Brady was able to spread then shred the Steeler defense, a tactic that they’ve often done. I’m no defensive coordinator, but maybe the Steelers should try something different?

Utilize tempo: That was the key in the game plan as the Patriots used tempo to tire out the Steeler defense. The up-tempo plus the spread passing game left the Steelers confused and left a lot of Patriots open in the secondary as Brady could read War and Peace in the pocket and still have time to throw the ball. After some postgame quotes from Steeler players about the up-tempo offense, I have to wonder if they’re being coached well enough to beat the Patriots, who has established residency in Mike Tomlin’s head.

Win the battle of field position: I thought the game might be closer, but the Patriots did make some good field position plays. On one pin punt situation, the Patriots were able to prevent the Steelers from downing a punt before it bounced into the end zone. Three times, the Steelers had to start drives inside their own 20. Special teams wasn’t nearly a factor as it might have been, but the Patriots +2 turnover margin certainly contributed as the Patriots started both those drives inside Steeler territory.

Avoid silly mistakes: Overall, there weren’t really any mental mistakes in the game. The biggest mistake in the game might have been the Malcolm Mitchell drop on the opening drive and Joe Thuney getting rag-dolled by Javon Hargrave on a 1st quarter sack. Thuney and Hargrave are both going to be very good players, so this won’t be the last time they square off. The Patriots mistakes were more physical than mental, physical mistakes occasionally happen and can be easily corrected. The Patriots didn’t put the ball on the ground and the closest pass to being intercepted was a drop by the otherwise sure-handed Malcolm Mitchell. The Patriots will have two weeks to fix the mistakes on the field.

Grade: I give the Patriots an A for game plan execution, only the running game prevents it from being an A+. The Patriots used tempo to keep the Steelers off-guard before spreading and shredding them. The Patriots were +2 in the turnover department and really didn’t give the Steelers any chance to steal this game away.