Sunday saw the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers – both competing for the AFC's number one postseason seed – play one of the most thrilling games of the 2017 season. It was a contest that had everything a memorable heavyweight fight needs: Great back-and-forth play by both teams, a bit of controversy and a thrilling comeback that ultimately led to a Patriots victory.
Let's take a look at the latter of the three ingredients to find out how New England was able to turn what once was an eight-point deficit into a 27-24 lead; particularly the team's final drive which started when the score was 24-19 and right after the team's defense forced its first three-and-out of the game.
1-10-NE 23 (2:06) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to R.Gronkowski (C.Heyward).
The drive that ultimately turned into the game-winner for New England could have been over rather quickly. On first down, quarterback Tom Brady threw a pass to his left intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski. However, the football was deflected by the defensive line to fly out of the target's reach and instead almost landed in defensive back Sean Davis' arms.
Had the pass not landed behind Davis, whose momentum carried him in the opposite direction, and he caught it instead, the Steelers would have taken over in prime field position to close out the game.
2-10-NE 23 (2:01) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to R.Gronkowski to NE 49 for 26 yards (S.Davis) [C.Heyward].
One underrated aspect of the first-down play is that the quick incompletion allowed New England to run one more play north of the two-minute warning. The Patriots made it count and turned it into the first gain of the series: A 26-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, who dominated Pittsburgh on the Patriots' quasi-final possession of the game.
New England approached the second down with its standard two-minute offense on the field aligned in an empty 3x2 shotgun set: Quarterback Tom Brady (#12) was the lone player in the backfield, with three potential receivers on the left side of the formation and two more on the right:
The receiving corps – an 11-personnel group – consisted of the usual suspects: James White (#28) was the lone running back while Phillip Dorsett (#13), filling in for the injured Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola (#80) and Brandin Cooks (#14) served as the wide receivers. And of course, New England's premier weapon was on the field as well: Rob Gronkowski (#87), who aligned on the outside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder (#77).
Pittsburgh countered with a man-to-man, cover 1 robber look with two safeties – the underneath safety serving as the “robber” – patrolling the deep-middle portions of the field. Brady, who motioned Gronkowski pre-snap to dissect whether the Steelers were in man or zone coverage, read the defense perfectly and found Gronkowski down the left seam for the drive's first big gain. Numerous things allowed this to happen as it did.
First, the offensive line did a good job of directing the pass rush around Brady and allowing him to climb the pocket:
During him stepping up in the pocket, Brady masterfully manipulated both safeties – aligning 15 and 20 yards deep, respectively – by initially looking to his right side before quickly directing his eyes back to the middle of the field, where Gronkowski had already beaten Sean Davis (#28):
At the line of scrimmage, the NFL's best tight end simply overpowered his opponent's attempted jam to gain separation. Brady's fake combined with the safeties' deep location further created space in the middle of the field – and he and Gronkowski made Pittsburgh pay. With only one play, the Patriots were already near midfield – and they did not even have to burn one of their two remaining timeouts to get there.
1-10-NE 49 (1:55) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to R.Gronkowski to PIT 25 for 26 yards (M.Mitchell)
The Patriots used a slightly different personnel group coming out of the two-minute warning. Instead of Danny Amendola, tight end Dwayne Allen (#83) was on the field giving New England's offense a 12-personnel look. For the first down play, the group aligned in a 2x2 formation with Tom Brady (#12) in the shotgun, flanked by running back James White (#28) to his left:
Pittsburgh again opted to go with a cover 1, man-to-man defense with zone coverage underneath – a tactic that worked fairly well early on in the game. However, by the late fourth quarter, New England started to find some weaknesses in the scheme. Most notably was the coverage mismatch between Rob Gronkowski (#87) and strong safety Sean Davis (#28), who was asked to cover the tight end on an island the entire series.
It was therefore not surprise the see Brady go for his big target again on this play, even though the Steelers presented a slightly different look this time. Prior to the snap, Gronkowski appeared to be covered by cornerback Mike Hilton (#31). However, the former Patriots practice squad player's assignment was blitzing off the offensive left edge at the snap:
Left tackle Nate Solder (#77) had no problem taking the defensive back out of the play. In the meantime, Davis, who was originally lining up 10 yards deep, started moving up the field to take on Gronkowski. However, both the tight end, who was not jammed at the line of scrimmage, and the defensive back were moving way too fast – unfortunately for Pittsburgh in opposite directions – which in turn allowed the Pro Bowler to run by his defender without any problems.
With safety Mike Mitchell (#23) shaded towards the other half of the field – likely to help defend against the straight-line speed of wide receiver Brandin Cooks (#14) –, Gronkowski again was allowed to roam free in the middle of the field. And once more, New England took advantage and gained considerable yardage on the play. Brady, who again was well-protected, did not even need a fake to create space down the seam:
Mitchell came back to the middle of the field to tackle Gronkowski, but not before he had already gained another 26 yards to set up his team at the Steelers 25-yard line. Just like one play earlier, New England played simple pitch-and-catch against a man-coverage scheme that left Davis on an island against one of the five best offensive skill position players in the entire league.
1-10-PIT 25 (1:09) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep right to R.Gronkowski to PIT 8 for 17 yards (S.Davis).
New England was not done exploiting the Rob Gronkowski versus Sean Davis mismatch. On the very next play, the team again used a 12-personnel package. This time, Danny Amendola (#80) was back on the field replacing Phillip Dorsett. Amendola aligned on the right side in the team's 2x2 shotgun formation and went on to play an important role on the 17-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski (#87) that followed the first two passes of the series:
The Steelers again opted to go with man-coverage on the outside, a soft zone in the middle of the field and a single high-safety over the top. And this safety – once again Mike Mitchell (#23) – found himself stuck in a dilemma quickly after the snap: Should he help cover Amendola or Gronkowski after both had been able to gain separation on their respective defenders?
Mitchell did not overplay one side or the other, so it was on Tom Brady (#12) to make a decision. And as has been the case on the previous three plays, he opted to go with his best target: Gronkowski, who once again had no problem to shake Sean Davis (#28) at the get-go into his crossing route (the above-mentioned Amendola did the same on the opposite side of the field, by the way):
As has been the case on the first completion to Gronkowski, the Patriots offensive line created space for Brady to step into by blocking the rushers by the quarterback. This time, however, the plan was not executed as well and the 40-year old had to slip out of a sack-attempt by defensive tackle Tyson Alualu (#94), who was able to slightly slip around the right shoulder of center David Andrews (#60).
The rush by Alualu as well as Cameron Heyward (#97), who was getting by left guard Joe Thuney (#72), did not allow Brady to step into a clean opening. This, in turn, forced the quarterback to quickly unload the football and place the pass not in Gronkowski's waiting arms but instead closer to the ground:
Despite the not-ideal pass placement, Gronkowski was still able to make the grab for a gain of 17 yards. The play, after which the Steelers called their second time-out of the half – something that turned out to be important on Pittsburgh's next series –, set up the Patriots with a fresh set of downs inside the Steelers' 10-yard line.
1-8-PIT 8 (1:00) D.Lewis up the middle for 8 yards, TOUCHDOWN
After four straight pass plays, New England also approached the first and goal situation it found itself in after Gronkowski's 17-yard reception with a 12-personnel group. However, the team did not have its typical two-minute back – James White – on the field but rather its top early down option, Dion Lewis (#33).
Other change were Tom Brady (#12) not aligning in shotgun but instead playing from under center and the two tight ends on the field – Dwayne Allen (#83) and Rob Gronkowski (#87) – not being split out wide but instead lining up as potential blockers outside of the left side of the offensive line:
At the snap, the offensive line immediately created a very good push up the field with the tight ends also man-handling their assignments: Gronkowski had no problem whatsoever pushing 6'6, 305 lbs defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt (#91) towards the middle of the field, while Allen sealed the edge by taking on the player originally responsible for covering Gronkowski, Sean Davis (#28):
Of course, the blockers sliding towards the inside left a player free, the one who was in coverage of Allen: cornerback Artie Burns (#25). With Lewis reading his blocks perfectly and following his two tight ends to the left side, the running back ran directly towards Burns. However, the defender took too wide of an angle and with Lewis a) running closer to the inside and b) already being at full speed, Burns overran the play.
While the cornerback was able to get a hold of Lewis' left leg, New England's running back was moving too fast to be slowed down before he had already reached the end zone to give his team its first lead since the first quarter. And because the lead was only one point at that time, New England opted to do the only logical thing and go for two.
(Pass formation) TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. T.Brady pass to R.Gronkowski is complete. ATTEMPT SUCCEEDS.
On their two-point attempt, the Patriots opted to use a different personnel group: Instead of a 12-personnel two-tight end set, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went with an 11-personnel three-wide receiver group: The three wideouts, Danny Amendola (#80), Brandin Cooks (#14) and – interestingly enough – Matthew Slater (#18) aligned in a trips bunch on the right side of the formation.
Running back James White (#28) was the single back behind Tom Brady (#12), who again lined up under center. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was split out wide to the right with Sean Davis (#28) covering him one-on-one in Pittsburgh's man scheme:
As has been the case all drive long, Gronkowski won the battle against the second-year safety rather decisively. At the snap, Brady took only one quick step before throwing to Gronkowski. By the time the football left the quarterback's right hand, his intended receiver had already been able to establish outside leverage on the overmatched defender by doing a quick inside fake before running the corner route:
Interestingly enough, New England opted to fake a familiar concept on the opposite side of the formation: The Patriots ran the same two-point play – a quick screen pass to Amendola with two blockers in front of him – that tied Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. But of course, Brady immediately threw the football to Gronkowski, who had no problem hauling in the back-shoulder throw.
With Brady placing his pass attempt perfectly and Davis not impeding the tight end's route in any way – he completely whiffed on his jam attempt due to Gronkowski's inside fake – New England's superstars had no issue converting the two-point attempt. As has been the case all drive long, they played simple pitch-and-catch versus a Steelers defense that yet again had no answer for Gronkowski.
With the Patriots adding two points to the scoreboard, the Steelers, down 27-24, needed a field goal just to tie the game. Of course, they were unable to do that as a Duron Harmon interception sealed the game.