Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is often asked about the New England Patriots. That simply comes with the territory of being the second-best franchise in the conference over the past two decades.
Tomlin called the Patriots “a—holes” to his team prior to the AFC Championship game. He also called the Patriots success “really impressive.” The Steelers are also changing their defense for 2017 after being dismantled by the Patriots for the hundredth time.
This past week, MMQB’s Peter King asked Tomlin, “Did you spend much time or energy this offseason thinking, ‘How are we going to beat the Patriots?’”
“I don’t think about that,” Tomlin replied. “I just know that it is less about the nameless gray faces that you play, and most of the time your issues and your solutions are in house. We gotta strengthen ourselves for the fight. It’s easy as a cop out for me to identify the outside variables. It’s a much tougher discussion with yourself to really get gritty and look within yourself and look at the things that are important and what you need to get done. It’s not a lack of acknowledgement of the dominance of the Patriots. But it’s really not that important. We better take care of our house. We better till our soil, as they say.”
This is a fair assessment by Tomlin. Teams don’t become successful by watching other franchises and putting targets on backs; the Steelers are the last franchise that need to be told that. Teams win either through innovation or the perfection of a preexisting craft.
If the Steelers can trot out Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant for an entire season (as highly unlikely as it sounds), then the Pittsburgh offense will challenge to be one of the best in the league. They can only get there by ensuring that Bell and Bryant are suspended and that Ben remains healthy; they won’t accomplish it by trying to scheme around the Patriots defense.
It’s the Pittsburgh defense that really deserves much of Tomlin’s attention. After a dominant decade in the 2000s, capped off with a #1 ranked defense by DVOA in 2010, the Steelers defense declined to 7th in DVOA in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 19th in 2013, before bottoming out at 30th in 2014.
From 2014 through 2017, the Steelers have invested seven of their eight draft picks in the top two rounds on LB Ryan Shazier, DL Stephon Tuitt, EDGE Bud Dupree, CB Senquez Golson, CB Artie Burns, CB Sean Davis, and EDGE T.J. Watt. The Steelers defense crept back up to 11th in DVOA in both 2015 and 2016.
But while the Steelers defense is good- not great- the Patriots have the easy blueprint to win and it hasn’t changed since Bill Belichick became head coach of the Patriots.
Just listen to how Belichick describes the Pittsburgh defense prior to Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks, and how he would try to beat the Steelers.
“Seattle is going to have to throw to win, Mike,” Belichick says to host Mike Tirico. “They’re gonna have to throw on the corners, they need to get the ball down the field and to the outside. Of course, the key will be protection, so if they can get the protection they got to attack the Pittsburgh corners.”
Tirico follows up by asking what sort of passing routes the Seahawks should use.
“Well in addition to throwing the deep ball and the outside routes, I think they’re also going to try and attack the seams in their three deep coverage between the corner and the safety,” Belichick replied.
Belichick was saying all this during the 2005-06 season. Here’s our analysis of the Steelers defense during the 2016-17 season, and it was extremely evident that the Patriots could move the ball by placing multiple players in the same zone by the sideline, or by attacking the open seams when the Steelers blitz one of their linebackers.
Nothing has changed over the years and so matter how much Tomlin emphasizes the defense’s need to execute perfectly, the Pittsburgh defense isn’t going to get over that Patriots hump without changing something. They claim they’re going to use more man coverage moving forward and that’s a big decision- one that seems to have been made with the Patriots in mind.