The New England Patriots open their title defense on Sunday night when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their fans are looking forward to this game for a number of reasons, and one of them might be quarterback Tom Brady’s success against Pittsburgh over his career. Brady has an 11-3 record against the Steelers in his 14 lifetime meetings against them, and his numbers against Pittsburgh are impressive.
Over his 11 regular season games against the Steelers, Brady has completed 69% of his passes for 3,403 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. In the playoffs Brady is even better, completing over 70% of his throws for five touchdowns and not a single turnover.
Brady’s numbers at home against Pittsburgh are even better. Brady has won all five of his home starts against the Steelers, completing 71.9% of his passes for 1,797 yards and 18 touchdowns, without an interception. This leads to a QB rating of 130.8 in home games against Pittsburgh, along with a Yards per Attempt of 9.17. All very impressive numbers.
Part of the reason for this success is the fact that Tom Brady is Tom Brady. But there was also a schematic aspect to these statistics. From Dick LeBeau through Keith Butler, the Steelers have been known to rely on “spot dropping” in the secondary. As discussed in today’s episode of The Scho Show, this is a coverage method where the defensive backs retreat to a specific landmark in their zone coverage, keeping their eyes on the quarterback as they retreat.
Spot dropping into single-high looks, often Cover 3, allowed these defenders under LeBeau and Butler to react to the movements of the quarterback and capitalize on poor throws and bad reads. When used in concert with a stiff pass rush, this can be effective.
However, when the quarterback is one of the best to ever do it, and is known for getting the ball out of his hands quickly, it can lead to some mismatches in favor of the offense. This also helps to explain Brady’s usual level of excellence against the Steelers.
In their Week 15 meeting last season, however, Butler was a bit more creative with his coverage looks. While we did see Pittsburgh spot drop into Cover 3 early in the game, as the contest wore on the Steelers secondary was much more varied with their looks, and it led to some confusion for the New England offense. Two drives from the first half of this meeting tell the tale.
On the Patriots’ opening drive of the contest, the offense scored within just a few plays. Brady took to the air on three of the four snaps on the drive. The New England offense opened their first possession using 21 offensive personnel, but the two running backs were James Develin and Rex Burkhead. They lined up for the first play with Develin (#46) in the backfield standing next to Brady (#12) in the shotgun, and Burkhead (#34) was split wide to the left, with Rob Gronkowski (#87) inside of him:
At this point, Brady can be fairly certain the Steelers are in zone coverage. How? Across from Burkhead is cornerback Artie Burns (#25). Unless Pittsburgh thinks putting a CB on Burkhead is the best usage of Burns, they’re in man coverage.
What does New England run here with Burkhead and Gronkowski? Hoss, a perfect play to combat Cover 3:
This works against Cover 3 for two reasons. First, the hitch route should find space in front of the cornerback. Without dedicated safety help, the CB needs to respect a vertical release and prevent the deep throw. Second, one of the weak areas of Cover 3 is right up the seams, and that route from Gronkowski attacks that area of the field.
Burns gives Burkhead a huge cushion, and Brady takes the easy throw and catch:
It goes for just a gain of four, but Brady gets the exact look he was expecting and the Patriots are on the move.
On second down, they stay with 21 offensive personnel, this time putting Develin and Burkhead in an i-formation. Chris Hogan (#15) enters the game along with Cordarrelle Patterson (#84) and they align in a stack slot to the left with Gronkowski as the in-line tight end on the right:
Patterson goes in motion across the formation, and watch how the secondary reacts:
As Patterson crosses the formation, the defense just slides, and eventually Joe Haden (#23) bumps to the outside from his initial alignment over Gronkowski. Again, this is zone coverage.
New England uses a maximum protection scheme and off of play-action, Brady has a post from Hogan and a curl from Patterson to choose from:
This is another great design against Cover 3. If you get lucky the free safety cheats down on the play-action fake, and you can hit the post route to Hogan over his head. Otherwise the curl from Patterson should be open in the same manner the hitch route was on the previous play.
The safety stays deep, so Brady throws the curl:
On both of these plays, the Steelers drop into their Cover 3 looks as Brady expects, and his decision is easy. It gets even easier on the touchdown that comes two plays later, when a busted Cover 3 in the secondary leaves Hogan wide open:
This drive could not have been easier for Brady and the Patriots. This was like taking an open book examination and still having the answer key given to you before the test.
In the second quarter, however, things got tougher.
Following a Duron Harmon interception of Ben Roethlisberger, the Patriots start a possession on their own 24-yard line, trailing 14-7. They look to throw immediately again out of a 21 personnel package using Burkhead and Develin:
Let’s take stock of the Steelers’ defense pre-snap. Here they do look to be in a zone coverage, as cornerback Cody Sensabaugh (#24) is aligned across from Burkhead, and once more they show a single safety deep. The indications are that Pittsburgh is in another Cover 3 look, like we saw on the previous plays.
But Pittsburgh rotates their coverage right at the snap, dropping into a Cover 2 scheme and even dropping an extra defender with Gronkowski, keeping eight in coverage:
Brady reads it fairly well despite the rotation, but is pressured off his initial drop spot and his pass to Gronkowski is off target and falls incomplete:
Now the Patriots face 2nd and 10, and they will take to the sky yet again. They adjust their personnel, bringing Hogan into the game to replace Develin, and line up using a 2x2 formation with Gronkowski and Edelman on the right, and Hogan inside of Josh Gordon (#10):
Try and be Brady for a moment, and scan the alignment of the Steelers’ secondary. They have two safeties deep, as well as another safety, Morgan Burnett (#42) aligned in the middle of the field, as a deep linebacker of sorts. Having just played a Cover 2 look, could Pittsburgh be using a Tampa 2 look of some kind here with Burnett in the middle of the field?
No, they’re going to rotate at the snap to a Cover 3 Buzz scheme, but get there in an interesting way:
Brady still reads this very well, coming out firing after a play-action fake to Burkhead, but these are not your father’s spot-dropping Steelers:
The quick hit to Edelman gets New England into a manageable third down situation.
So over these first two plays we have seen a well disguised Cover 2 zone look, and a nice rotation into a Cover 3 Buzz scheme, from the Steelers. On the third down try, they run a third look, showing pressure but dropping into a Cover 2 Man Under coverage:
Brady gets pressured off the edge and his throw to James White (#28) on a hitch is off target, and incomplete.
Tom Brady is a brilliant quarterback who has seen almost anything a defense can throw at him. When he knows exactly what to expect before the ball is snapped, he can be downright surgical. That is what we saw unfold over the first drive of last year’s game. Yet, when the defense deviates from its pre-snap look, it makes Brady’s job a bit tougher. If the Steelers truly are moving away from their spot-dropping ways, and resemble the secondary we saw on this second drive rather than the one on the first, New England’s passing game might not have the easiest go of things on Sunday night.
But if the Steelers give Brady the answers before the ball is snapped, as they have done so often in the past...