The Pittsburgh fan's perspective: lessons learned

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 09, 2007

(Ed. Note: This week we asked two Cold, Hard Football Facts readers, a Steelers fan and a Patriots fan, to comment on Sunday's big Pittsburgh-New England donnybrook. Here's the reaction from Steelers fan Josh Kaus. Click here to read the commentary from Patriots fan John Lucy. If you'd like to contribute items about your team, let us know.)
By Josh Kaus
Cold, Hard Football Facts rosy-eyed optimist
Let's get this out in the open - I'm a Steelers fan. 
Since Pittsburgh's 2001 AFC title game loss at home to the Patriots, I have lived to despise New England. I came into this Week 14 game between the Steelers and Patriots expecting a loss for Pittsburgh, and a sound one at that. So, in a certain cruel way, I wasn't disappointed by my disappointment with Pittsburgh's 34-13 loss.
This hatred for the Patriots has grown to a level I don't think most fans would even be able to appreciate. Since the 2004 AFC championship game, another New England win in Pittsburgh, my life as a fan has been focused on one single thing - beating the Patriots in the playoffs. Nothing else matters. 
No other team is really an obstacle compared to the Patriots. The 2005 Steelers won three straight playoff games on the road, for example. One reason why was that not one of those three games were against New England.
So the only thing that mattered in the regular season was seeing the Steelers put themselves into position to knock off New England when it counts. My reason tells me that this loss doesn't make a difference. Even with a victory at New England Sunday, the Steelers would probably still have to return to Foxboro in the playoffs. 
But my heart won't let me walk away so easily.  

The Look Ahead
What the Steelers did wrong seems to be the biggest story to me. What they can do to fix that for a potential rematch is also significant.

There will be a lot of talk from the media and fans (especially those in the New England area) that the Steelers are done. The scoreboard, they say, is all that matters. 
However, such a base outlook rarely proves true in this league. Rematches rarely play out like the original meeting. One doesn't need to look further than the two meetings between New England and Pittsburgh in 2004 for proof. The Steelers smacked around the Patriots in the regular season, ending New England's record 21-game win streak. When they met for a second time back in Pittsburgh during the playoffs, the Patriots smacked around the Steelers.

So I think the Steelers have to look at this loss as a learning experience they can benefit from come playoff time.
Lessons Learned
So this game may ultimately prove beneficial for Pittsburgh. As a team, they probably learned a great deal. First and foremost, let's start with the guy who will take the most heat this coming week, second-year free safety Anthony Smith.

Smith is the guy who made "The Guarantee," in case you missed it. I'm sure you didn't miss the two TDs he allowed in this game. Smith is a ball-hawking hothead out of Syracuse. This is a man who Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton said was simply too angry to start, yet would probably be a star if he played elsewhere. 
Make no bones about it - this guy can, in fact, play. Today, Belichick made him a better player.  Smith learned a tough lesson. His pride has been wounded, but if he's smart he'll recover. 
Belichick and Brady taught Troy Polamalu a similar lesson in the 2004 AFC title game in much the same way. I would imagine that few of the people reading this site can forget the bomb Brady threw to Deion Branch. It was a 60-yard TD play early in the game, and it was Polamalu who was responsible for the blown coverage. 
It was almost identical to the first TD Smith allowed Sunday. It came off play-action on first down at midfield, much like the play back in 2004 that toasted Polamalu. Since then No. 43 has evolved into a much more disciplined safety. 
Smith wasn't beaten physically Sunday. The Patriots never even tried to beat him physically, partly because they didn't have to. Instead, they outsmarted Smith, twice tricking him on fakes.  This included the back-breaking trick play the Patriots used in the third quarter (stolen from the Steelers own playbook): Brady threw a lateral to Randy Moss, who threw back to Brady, who lofted a 56-yard TD toss to Jabar Gaffney.

Nothing Uglier Than a Zone Blitz Gone Wrong
Dick LeBeau's defensive game plan left me scratching my head. The pressure hit home early, but it clearly didn't last. And there was no adjustment. By the start of the second half the Steelers defense kept blitzing, even thought it clearly wasn't working. And once the Patriots found a bit of rhythm, something worse happened: The defense stopped moving and disguising what they were doing. 
When your front seven becomes static against Brady, or any great QB, you are in trouble. The Steelers were barely disguising their coverage. LeBeau has a saying, something along the lines of "nothing being uglier than a zone blitz gone wrong."  We saw some blitzes gone wrong Sunday and LeBeau was right: it was ugly.  

There was a lot of talk from the Patriots camp about the Steelers blitzes. The Steelers do, of course, bring heavy pressure. However, there have been many games this year where the Steelers took a different approach. Against Seattle, Cincinnati (first meeting), Buffalo, and Cleveland (second meeting) the team frequently dropped seven to eight men into coverage.  They played a good deal of cover 2, as well. This change went largely unnoticed by the media, but it's something people might have picked up on if they were watching closely.

By the second half, the Patriots had figured out the Steelers blitzes. They began to pick apart the gaping holes in the Steelers zones. In the middle of the fourth quarter, New England's Wes Welker caught five straight passes from the slot. Each time the Steelers brought five or more rushers, and each time they brought a man from right over Welker. LeBeau looked clueless on national TV. 
This was the story of the second half from my viewpoint. Once Brady figures out your blitzes, you are done. He stopped missing his open receivers, and began to connect. The defense never adjusted in return, and I was puzzled. LeBeau is a potential Hall of Fame coordinator. What was he thinking?

The Missing Link
One possible issue was that the Steelers were missing Troy Polamalu. 
Bill Belichick touched on something during his press conference this week. He provided a rare nugget of insight to the public when he told the press how the Steelers were playing far more nickel without Polamalu. Usually they are a dime team. If you want to match up man outside with the Patriots in their spread offense, you need the guys outside who you trust to run with the receivers. 
Polamalu is one of those guys, a safety who is frequently used as an extra CB on the field, instead of just as a safety in a deep zone. Tyrone Carter cannot play man on any of New England's top four receivers. 
The only other option the team has to bring out at this point is rookie William Gay. 
It's possible LeBeau felt it was best to go down blitzing with his base 3-4. With Polamalu, the Steelers lost range and some ability to disguise their coverages. One of the hidden strengths of Polamalu's game is his ability to cover ground pre-snap. He will frequently come into the box, only to drop back into a deep zone, or vice versa. You simply can not do this with Carter, or most safeties.  

The Pats gameplan on offense probably won't change much in a rematch.  They are who they are at this point.  I actually expected them to run a bit more in this meeting, but it never happened.  They stuck with the short passing game and spread to deal with the blitzes.  In the past few games, people have been playing them tight outside.  I noticed far more picks being run by the Pats in this game in an attempt to gain separation.  

How will this defense perform in any rematch?  Something tells me the Pats fans reading won't like my answer.  I'm not overly concerned.  Two of Brady's TD passes came on back-up SS Tyrone Carter being out of position.  Another came because Smith inexplicably bit on a play-action pass against the pass heaviest team in the league.  Breakdowns like these are fatal to the Steelers.  They have been in each and everyone of the losses.  Only against the Browns were they able to recover from their boneheaded miscues.   

The Steelers will likely be more cautious dialing up the blitzes in another game.  Instead, I would expect to see more conservative 4 man rushes, tighter zones, and more man coverage.  I'm not left with the feeling that this defense is out-matched by the Pats physically.  The issues seem to be a matter of scheme, and the Steelers are a well enough coached team that they can clean that up.  They have the players who can execute in a variety of ways, as well.

New England's Red Zone Success
The Patriots defense remains at its best in the red zone. 
When the space becomes confined, their overall lack of speed becomes less of a factor. It allows Rodney Harrison to cover a speedier receiver like Santonio Holmes one-on-one. 
Pittsburgh's biggest issue, though, is what has bogged down their offense all year: breakdowns at the wrong time and a lack of explosiveness.
The Steelers have only five plays of 40 yards or more in the passing game all season, and not once since their first meeting with Cincinnati five games ago. All but one of these plays have come from Holmes. Before tonight, they had gone three weeks without a play of over even 25 yards (as CBS pointed out).  

The Patriots blitzed the Steelers without fear in this game. All night they brought their safeties up into the box (usually at the last second to disguise their coverages).

This is fine, if your offense is efficient and doesn't screw-up. However, the Steelers have not shown the ability to string together perfect drives consistently. Sunday they bogged down in the red zone four times. Two of these four red-zone visits resulted in field goals. They turned the ball over on downs the other two visits.  

Three of these failures were the result of Pittsburgh mistakes. Miscommunication between Ward and Roethlisberger resulted in a failure to convert a 3rd-and-2 and led to a FG. On another drive that short-circuited at the 1, Bruce Arians called two straight passes and then tried to rush it not with Willie Parker or Najeh Davenport, but to Hines Ward coming in motion. The final drive was killed by a Nate Washington drop on 3rd and 12.

Pittsburgh Can Close the Gap
The Patriots are better than the Steelers on paper. Simply look at their 13-0 record, record-setting offense and superior special teams. However, that talent gap isn't so large that it can not be overcome. Nor should it result in a 21-point blowout. 
Many will be quick to dismiss Pittsburgh as frauds. However, the way you lose is significant. If this were a playoff game, it would be as bad a loss as I've ever seen as a Steelers fan.
However, it wasn't. This was a regular season game. CBS broadcaster Phil Simms used the phrase "fact finding mission" at one point. This is the reality in my book. The Steelers weren't physically dominated by the Patriots. They were out-smarted and out-coached. If they are fortunate enough to get another crack at this team, I don't expect the difference between them to be anywhere near as great.

The Patriots have been there, and done that across the board. They know exactly who they are and what they want to do. They are going to win games on the arm of Tom Brady. They have proven schemes and the ability to adjust on the fly. Their coaches have an established system for winning, and they have a lot of vets (a blessing and a curse). 
The Patriots don't have to worry about breaking in a guy like Anthony Smith. However, they also don't have the positives a guy like Smith brings to the table. Whereas Smith is a young, athletic playmaker with tremendous upside, many of New England's linebackers and safeties are in the twilight of their careers. 
One side can be tricked, while the other will find itself physically outmatched as the season goes on.

My brain, not my heart, tells me that the Steelers got more from this game than the Patriots did.  They will benefit more from this loss than the Patriots will their win. New England showed more of its hand. Some people will dismiss the idea of the Steelers making it to the AFC championship game after Sunday's loss 
But something tells me that the Patriots, who pretty much sat on their lead in the final minutes of the game, aren't so sure. Late in the game against the Steelers, the Patriots didn't throw three straight passes out of the shotgun like they have against other teams and were content to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
I don't need to wonder why.

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