The Steelers broke out a new game plan to stop Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense, and they executed it as well as any defense has against New England in quite some time. It was so effective that the Patriots are going to have to prove they can defeat similar schemes in the coming weeks because Pittsburgh's defensive looks will surely be replicated by the Patriots' future opponents.
Obviously, Pittsburgh has an elite system that has always been backed up with top-of-the-line personnel, but Brady has beaten it handily in past meetings. What were the Steelers able to do differently, and why did it work so well this time? After combing through the game tape, several things stuck out about the Steelers' plan of attack.
First, the Steelers were in man coverage exclusively throughout the game, which is a stark contrast from their typical zone scheme. When Brady has beaten them in the past, it's because he's exploited the soft spots in Pittsburgh's zone — up the seams, in front of the cornerbacks and behind the linebackers — but that wasn't an option Sunday because everyone had trouble beating man coverage.
After the game, players on both sides noted Pittsburgh played more man than usual, but it wasn't apparent how often they stayed in that coverage. There were some zone elements on the inside, particularly with at least one safety and then occasionally from linebackers who didn't blitz. Other than that, it was all man all the time.
The Steelers also used another effective tactic to disguise their blitzes. At the time of the snap, there were 24 occasions when at least six defensive players were in the box within one yard from the line of scrimmage, almost making it look like a picket fence. The Steelers show that look on a regular basis, but it's extremely tough to recognize where the pressure will be generated. They used another wrinkle by occasionally using just one or two down linemen in the middle of that formation.
They blitzed with at least five pass rushers about half the time out of that look. Some of the blitzes were very basic and could have been recognized before the snap based on the location of the tight end or running back, but the Patriots didn't pick them up as well out of that look. With that type of formation, the offensive linemen have to be perfectly on point with their blocking assignments because there's almost no time to adjust.
The Steelers also used 11 different blitz combinations (for example: the left outside linebacker and right inside linebacker is one combination, and the left outside linebacker and strong safety is another) to keep the Patriots guessing.
Pittsburgh took a page out of Rex Ryan's playbook, too. The Steelers were aggressive with the running back in passing situations (Kevin Faulk most of the time). Inside linebacker Larry Foote was mostly responsible for Faulk when he lined up in the backfield, though safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark also got some reps in that role, and as the play developed, Foote blitzed and broke off when Faulk went into a passing pattern. That's when Foote would do everything to jam Faulk at the line, and Foote did a sound job on Faulk in coverage.
The Steelers weren't as savage with their jams on receivers as originally thought, but the cornerbacks did play the receivers tight from the start of the play. Because of this and Foote's job on Faulk, Brady wasn't able to check the ball down as quickly as he typically likes, especially when there was pressure. There were times when the Patriots were able to counter that tactic on Faulk, most notably during his 18-yard reception during the Pats' second touchdown drive. Left guard Logan Mankins broke off a double team to hit Foote as he broke toward Faulk, who found more space as a result and picked up the big gain.
Going forward, the Patriots are going to have to do a better job beating aggressive man coverage because the Steelers laid down the blueprint for how to stop one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. It's not like the Patriots haven't seen this stuff before, particularly against the Jets. The trouble was New England's inability to make the necessary in-game adjustments, and that will be a focal point going forward.