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Performance Review: Steelers-Patriots

A film breakdown of New England's AFC Championship victory over Pittsburgh.

1st Quarter

…Tough break for rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell on the opening drive. He saw a Tom Brady pass go straight through his hands at the Steelers' 5-yard line that would have given New England a 1st-and-goal set of downs. The throw was on target, but Mitchell had his hands too far apart as the ball arrived. He should have had them more in the classic W formation.

…Next possession, Brady was sacked on 3rd down when DT Javon Hargrave put a nifty move on rookie LG Joe Thuney. Hargrave faked like he was going to Thuney's outside shoulder, then cut back inside. Thuney bought the initial fake and stepped too far to his right to try to recover. In so doing, he surrendered his leverage. Now off-balance, he was susceptible to Hargrave's simple shove, which sent Thuney to the turf. Hargrave now had a free shot at Brady, who gave himself up in the backfield.

…Looked like some kind of blown assignment by Pittsburgh that allowed WR Chris Hogan to roam free into the end zone on his first touchdown catch. Three Steeler defenders were on the right [offensive] side of the field, where Hogan, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman were lined up. However, all three chose to play shallow to cover the routes of the latter two receivers. Hogan was the only one of the three to run a deep route, and he was unmarked from the beginning. One of the defenders, likely CB William Gay, should have picked up Hogan. Instead, New England went up 10-0.

…Pittsburgh's star back, Le'Veon Bell, didn't have much of a chance to impact the game because he suffered a groin injury late in the first quarter. Up to that point however, New England's defense was doing a good job of stifling him, in large part because of their adherence to sound gap fundamentals.

Bell is the kind of back that likes to be patient in the backfield and wait for a hole to open up before he darts through it. The Patriots' front, including safety Patrick Chung, who dropped down into the box frequently, maintained their responsibilities at the line of scrimmage – not improvising to try to make an individual play on Bell.

As a result, Bell wasn't finding many lanes through which to run, and when he chose his spots, they closed rapidly because the Patriots were playing patiently and reacting to him, rather than the other way around.

2nd Quarter                                                                                                     

…New England's criss-crossing patterns again seemed to confuse the Steelers' secondary on 3rd-and-8 from their own 44. Again it was Hogan, Amendola, and Edelman, this time all on the left offensive side of the formation. Hogan was the flanker, as before, and this time, two Steelers followed Amendola, who ran the deep route, while Edelman took a defender with him from the slot on a shallow out-route. This left Hogan to drift over to the sideline unguarded and make and easy catch-and-run to pick up the first down.

…The next play was Hogan's second score, the flea-flicker from Brady. The initial fake was critical to this play's success, and New England was able to execute it because of the relative success they'd had to that point on the ground. Brady, from under center, handed off to RB Dion Lewis, who took the ball straight up the middle until he met the lineman at the line of scrimmage. While he was doing so, Hogan slanted slowly inside from the left slot as if about to help run-block for Lewis.

These two actions prompted Steeler safety Mike Mitchell to race up from the deep secondary toward the line to play the fun. As this happened, Lewis turned and tossed the ball back to Brady and Hogan kicked on the afterburners to race past Mitchell. All Brady had to do was drop a precise pass into Hogan's waiting arms, which he did.

…Perhaps the turning point of the game came at the end of the half, when it appeared that Pittsburgh had matched that Hogan touchdown. TE Jesse James looked like he dragged Chung with him over the goal line after making a catch in the red zone. That was the signal at first by Terry McAulay's officiating crew. But replay reviews showed that James didn't reach the ball over the goal line. This was partly thanks to safety Duron Harmon's coming over to help at the last moment. His extra effort not to give up on the play kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone.

The Steelers still had a 1st-and-goal from inside the NE 1, however. Next play, Chung chased down RB DeAngelo Williams from the back side while the d-line clogged up the middle. Williams lost a yard.

Then, two Steelers blockers allowed rookie DT Vincent Valentine to penetrate the backfield. Valentine tossed one aside, while the other just ran past him. Williams lost three yards on the tackle.

On 3rd down, Roethlisberger threw a wide pass to WR Eli Rogers in the flat, but he was well covered even if he'd made the catch. Pittsburgh had to settle for a short field goal and trailed by eight. It was a momentum-stealing series for the Patriots.

3rd & 4th Quarters

…The three-and-out that New England forced at the start of the second half was equally pivotal in keeping the Patriots in control of the game. The key play was the third down, when New England brought pressure in the face of Roethlisberger up the middle, forcing him to underthrow his intended receiver.

…LB Kyle Van Noy's forced fumble, recovered by DE Rob Ninkovich, was yet another big defensive play. It didn't look like Van Noy was necessarily going for the strip, but his proper form tackle made it possible.

…Great route by Edelman on his touchdown catch. He sold a crossing route, then stopped on a dime in the end zone and reversed direction, while the defender marking stumbled while trying to keep up. Edelman wound up wide open and made the easy catch.

…The second goal-line stand was equally impressive, even if the score at the time probably would have rendered any Steelers score as moot.

…CB Eric Rowe's INT was simply a function of Roethlisberger once again underthrowing an intended receiver and Rowe being aware of his surroundings to adjust his coverage to make the play.


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