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What happened on the final play of the Patriots vs. Steelers game?

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Breaking down the final sequence of events that led to the Patriots improbable victory over the Steelers.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski marched the team down the field, Dion Lewis scored what would ultimately be the game-winning touchdown with Gronk converting the 2-point conversion attempt to make the score 27-24. Great kickoff coverage forced the Steelers to start inside their own 20 yard line with just 52 seconds to go. All the Patriots had to do was prevent the Steelers from reaching field goal range and the win was wrapped up.

Except the first play from scrimmage on that drive everything went wrong for the Patriots.

Play 1: 1st and 10 at PIT 21. Crossing route to Juju Smith-Schuster goes for 69 yards

The Steelers opened up with 11 personnel in a 3x1 formation with Martavis Bryant, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Darrius Heyward-Bey as the 3 receivers with TE Jessie James as the inner slot receiver and RB Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. The Patriots countered with dime personnel (4-1) with Jordan Richards playing the LB role.

The Patriots have 2 deep safeties with man-to-man coverage underneath on the Steelers receivers with Eric Rowe on Smith-Schuster and Stephon Gilmore on Bryant. The idea is not to give up a big chunk of yards and force the ball to the middle of the field where the clock will run since the Steelers only had 1 timeout. James runs a seam route to clear out the middle of the field with Chung in coverage. Bell runs a wheel route out of the backfield with Richards in tight coverage. That opens up the space for the crossing routes with Bryant and Smith-Schuster.

With no middle of the field player to disrupt one of the two the crossing routes, Bryant is able rub Eric Rowe and create the space for Smith-Schuster to catch and run. The contact is roughly 1 yard past the line of scrimmage, so it’s not offensive pass interference by rule. With the safeties playing 20 yards back, there was a lot of room for the Steelers receiver to run after the catch. McCourty takes a bad angle in pursuit and Richards is being blocked by Bell. Eric Rowe hustles 40 yards downfield to get a hand on Smith-Schuster’s foot, which slows him down enough for Duron Harmon to make the tackle at the NE 9. Pittsburgh calls timeout with 34 seconds.

Play 2: 1st and Goal NE 10. Jessie James 10 yard TD overturned by replay

By the alignment of the defense, it looks like the Patriots are in zone to combat the unusual formation with a RB lined up wide and a WR in the backfield.

The Steelers try to confuse the Patriots with an unorthodox formation with Darrius Heyward-Bey in the backfield and Le’Veon Bell lined up as a receiver. The Steelers utilize a 3x1 formation with a bunched set to the offense’s right. The Patriots look to be in a zone here with Malcolm Butler as the middle of the field defender here. Roethlisberger looks off the middle of the field coverage and Butler immediately sprints out to the flat to pick up Heyward-Bey out of the backfield, but that leaves an open void for James to slip in. Smith-Schuster boxes out Harmon before the Patriots safety can make a play on the ball and it appears that James caught the game-winner. It was a really well-designed play that worked until James lost control of the ball on the way to the ground.

However, replay shows that James’ left hand comes off the football right before his upper body and the ball hit the ground. After a lengthy booth review, the call on the field is overturned to an incomplete pass, creating a potential rule controversy in the offseason. Now the controversy here is when is James established as a runner because he catches the ball going to the ground. At the same time, James’ focus should be to catch the ball and just roll into the end zone because no Patriot player was going to touch him down.

The shot that overturned a potential game winning TD for the Steelers as James’ left hand came off the ball and ultimately lost control of the ball at the ground.

Play 3: 2nd and Goal NE 10. Patriots force the Steelers to throw a pass in the field of play

The Steelers line up with a 2x1 formation here with the same personnel on the last two plays. The Patriots have 7 men at the line of scrimmage, 5 with their hand in the dirt, showing pressure.

The Patriots ultimately send 6, including safety Patrick Chung, which is more than the Steelers can block. Eric Lee has a free shot at Roethlisberger here. Lee makes the mistake of over-pursuing the Steelers burly QB and he shrugs off an arm tackle. If Lee picks up the sack, it’s probably likely the Steelers cut their losses and go for a field goal attempt from the NE 19 so it ultimately worked out in the Patriots favor. However, the unblocked pressure forces Roethlisberger to panic and check down to Darrius Heyward-Bey. Malcolm Butler is able to fight through traffic and wrestles down the Steeler receiver at the NE 7.

This play works in the Patriots favor because the Steelers had no timeouts and the clock was running since Butler tackled Heyward-Bey in the field of play. So now the Steelers have two options:

  1. Spike the ball to stop the clock on 3rd down and settle for a 24 yard field goal
  2. Run a quick pass play

The Steelers managed to do neither.

Play 4: 3rd and Goal NE 7. Rowe and Harmon combine for the game-sealing interception

The Steelers selected Option 2. However, where the Steelers fail here is with communication. Roethlisberger is hurrying up and telling his teammates he’s going to clock the ball. As the Steelers QB is at the line of scrimmage, he gives Eli Rogers a non-verbal cue to run a pass route on a fake spike.

1 vs. 7 is a bad matchup for the Steelers, especially on an in-breaking route.

This is where Ben makes a huge miscalculation. The first mistake is not realizing who is opponent is. The Patriots are well-versed in situational football, so you’d have to assume they are prepared for a fake spike. The second is being careless with the football with a field goal in the bag.

The Steelers only have Eli Rogers run a pass route and it’s a slant. There are two issues with that:

  1. Only 1 receiver is running a route, so if that read isn’t there then there is no play.
  2. The route goes right towards the middle of the field, where there are 5 Patriots ready to jump on the route. A fade route would have been a higher percentage play because that’s 1 on 1 coverage. Would they have run that same route with Antonio Brown? Probably not.
Jordan Richards jumps the passing lane, which forces Roethlisberger to have to pull the ball down.

As Roethlisberger fakes the spike, he looks to his one and only read. Jordan Richards does a great job of reading Roethlisberger’s eyes and immediately jumps into the passing lane. Trey Flowers realizes the play is live and rushes past a Steelers OL that didn’t even attempt to block him and bears down on the Steeler QB. Roethlisberger knows at that point the ball has to come out because a sack runs out the rest of the clock since the Steelers can’t spike the ball on 4th down.

Rowe gets his hands up in front of Rogers and tips the pass. Roethlisberger has to throw the ball to avoid a Trey Flowers sack that would have ended the game.

In that situation, Brady throws the ball out of the end zone and gives Stephen Gostkowski a chance to tie the game. Roethlisberger forces the ball into coverage and by the time he releases the ball, Rowe is on top of Rogers. Rowe does a good job of locating the ball and getting his hand in front of Rogers without hooking the Steelers receiver. Rowe’s effort was successful as he batted the ball straight up into the air and right into the arms of Harmon, who adds another 4th quarter game-sealing interception to his resume.