The New England Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense came as close it possibly could without snapping Sunday night in the first half of the AFC Championship Game.
The Steelers drove down the field at the end of the second quarter, and it appeared Pittsburgh was about to pull to within four points of the Patriots as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit tight end Jesse James for a 19-yard touchdown pass. The score was reviewed and reversed, and the course of the game quickly changed.
Let’s go through that sequence in this week’s film review.
— Patriots safety Patrick Chung lined up across from James, and the Patriots had safety help over the top on that side from Duron Harmon.
— Chung stayed with James off the snap as Harmon hung back.
— Harmon split off from James and Chung to help cornerback Logan Ryan on wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. James began to break away from Chung on an out route.
— James caught the pass, but Chung pulled him down from behind as Harmon charged down to hit the big tight end at the goal line, preventing him from getting into the end zone.
— James never got the ball across the plain, and the touchdown was reversed, giving the Steelers the ball on 1st and goal at the 1-yard line.
— The Steelers sent their tight end, David Johnson, in motion, and Devin McCourty followed him across the field.
— This inadvertently gave Chung a free path on a run blitz, as he looped around the right tackle and into the backfield.
— Chung chased down DeAngelo Williams and linebacker Dont’a Hightower met him head on for a 1-yard loss.
— On second and goal, the Steelers tried to run the ball again from the 2-yard line.
— Right tackle Marcus Gilbert tried to cut Patriots defensive tackle Vincent Valenetine and whiffed.
— Valentine and fellow defensive tackle Alan Branch had a free path and quickly scampered into the backfield to stop Williams for a 3-yard loss.
— The Steelers attempted to pass on third down, but the Patriots knew what they were doing. Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan was lined up across from Steelers receiver Eli Rogers, and corner Eric Rowe was across from Sammie Coates. The Steelers sent Rogers in motion, and Ryan followed him.
— Rogers ran an out route, and Coates sprinted into the middle of the field, so Ryan and Rowe switched receivers with Rowe following Rogers into the flat and Ryan sent backpedaling.
— Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard pressured Roetlisberger, forcing him to rush his throw into the flat to Rodgers …
— … and was off target. The Steelers settled for a field goal, only cutting the Patriots’ lead to 17-9
The Steelers found themselves near the red zone again early in the fourth quarter while trailing 33-9 with different stakes.
— Branch controlled Steelers All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey on first and goal from the 6-yard line and made a 1-yard stop
— The Steelers looked in good shape with Williams finding a huge hole on second and goal.
— But it quickly closed up with Hightower filling his gap and defensive end Trey Flowers looping around off the left tackle.
— Ryan showed good awareness on third down as he saw Steelers wide receiver Cobi Hamilton step out of bounds and quickly alerted the back judge.
— The official saw the infraction and threw his hat to the turf, so Ryan stopped covering Hamilton. Roethlisberger targeted him anyway, and Hamilton caught it, forcing a loss of down.
— Ryan lined up across from Hamilton again on fourth and goal.
— He jammed Hamilton off the line.
— Then stayed with him downfield and knocked the ball away, forcing a turnover on downs.
The Patriots allowed just one touchdown on three Steelers red-zone opportunities. Red-zone defense has become a major strength for the Patriots as the season has progressed. They’ll need to stay on top of their game in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons.
Here are some additional notes from our film review.
— Tom Brady had one of his most accurate games of the season in the 36-17 AFC Championship Game win. Only three incompletions can be attributed to his inaccuracy. He was also 5-of-6 with two touchdowns on downfield passes, all of which went to wide receiver Chris Hogan.
— The Patriots weren’t able to run the ball well early in the game, but running back LeGarrette Blount came on strong late when New England was trying to kill the clock. His 18-yard run inside the goal line, which set up a 1-yard touchdown on the next play, was a season highlight. Earlier in the game, the Patriots’ offensive linemen had trouble blocking Steelers linebacker James Harrison, and running backs would go down on first contact.
— The Patriots exploited wide receiver matchups against Steelers linebackers. It would become obvious why Brady was going to an audible, and the Steelers still wouldn’t adjust.
— Branch’s monster season continued Sunday night. He was one of the primary reasons why the Patriots were able to hold the Steelers to under 3 yards per carry. Flowers, Ryan, Chung, Hightower, linebacker Elandon Roberts and defensive tackle Malcom Brown also made highlight plays against the run.
— There wasn’t a ton of pressure from either side. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon did a nice job of protecting Brady off the edge. The Patriots didn’t show a ton of interest in rushing the passer, sending just three pass rushers on numerous plays.
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images