Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Patriots Stomp Steelers In AFC Title Tilt; Will Face Falcons in Super Bowl

Jesse James had beaten Patrick Chung on a post route and had a sure touchdown.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' tight end had feigned a seam route that he had beaten Chung on earlier, and the New England Patriots' strong safety had taken the cheese, giving James ample room to catch the ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Chung's pursuit angle suggested that even if he was able to bring him down, he would easily break the plane of the goal line anyway...

...then, suddenly, Patriots' centerfielder Duron Harmon appeared out of nowhere, lowering his shoulder as he made contact with James, the collision dropping the tight end to the turf mere inches from the mark, denying the touchdown.
Harmon (30) denied James the end zone

Harmon was playing over the top and somehow was able to get over to assist on the play.  Big deal, right?  The Steelers would surely score anyway - if not on first and goal from 5 inches away, then on the ensuing downs.

But on first down, Patriots' linebacker Dont'a Hightower stuffed Steelers' running back DeAngelo Williams for a one yard loss, then on second down rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine dropped Williams for a loss of three.

Eventually, the Steelers would have to settle for a field goal so they would at least get three points out of the drive, but the epic goal line stand by the Patriots turned the tide in what was shaping up to be a track meet, the first team to break the tape at the finish line going on to Houston to play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51.  But from that point forward, the Steelers seemed to run out of gas, and the track meet was cancelled due to lack of interest.

Up 17-9 and with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, surrendering a touchdown in that situation would have put the Steelers in good shape, down just one point - or even tied with the Patriots with a successful two-point conversion - and knowing that they would be receiving the ball first in the second half, a touchdown would have given Pittsburgh all of the momentum...

...but instead they went into the locker room down by five, and then New England's defense stifled Pittsburgh on their initial possession of the second half, the Patriots' offense taking over from there, going on a 19-0 run over the next twenty minutes to blow the Steelers out of Gillette Stadium, taking the American Football Conference championship by a score of 36-17.

As a result, New England will face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 in Houston on February 5th.

In reality, there were many players on the New England side of things who came up big.  There are the obvious ones - like Chris Hogan whom the Steelers apparently either sorely underestimated, or just plain forgot about, to the tune of nine receptions for a whopping 180 yards and two touchdowns - and the ones who did their job in a more subtle manner.

Take your pick, be it James White picking up rogue blitzers, the entire offensive line that protected Brady like he was the King of the world, or even Harmon who flipped the game around with his fundamentally sound tackle. There was Malcolm Butler punking Pittsburgh's All Pro receiver Antonio Brown. not allowing him clean releases at the line of scrimmage, and New England's defensive line winning the battles in the running game - but homage should also be paid to the mistakes made by the Steelers themselves, mistakes that turned a relatively close game into a laugher.

Again, take your pick, be it Eli Rodgers' fumble that gave New England excellent field position and led to a Julian Edelman touchdown catch late in the third quarter, receiver Cobi Hamilton's illegal touching of a pass in the end zone that nullified a touchdown pass, or Roethlisberger's who-the-hell-is-he-throwing-that-to interception early in the fourth quarter that cornerback Eric Rowe returned deep into Pittsburgh territory...

...or the Steelers' safeties losing containment on both of Hogan's deep touchdown receptions - all were contributing factors in the outcome of the game, whether forced by the Patriots' defense or just unforced errors by the Steelers themselves - and one also has to wonder how the game would have gone had Pittsburgh's All Pro running back Le'Veon Bell not pulled a groin and sat out the majority of the game.

Bell had reportedly been bothered by a sore groin for some time, though he looked to be in top form in the post-season prior to coming to Foxborough - and truthfully, he wasn't all that effective in his limited touches before leaving the game, picking up just 20 yards on six carries while his replacement, Williams, averaged a weak 2.4 yards per carry, a stat made even more impressive by the fact that he had a 15 yard scamper mixed into his 14 carries, and if one were to eliminate that, he ran for only 30 yards on 13 carries.

No doubt, Bell being left pouting on the sidelines helped the cause defensively for New England, but only as far as being able to concentrate more on situational football, but what helped even more was that the Patriots' offense was able to build a three-score lead early in the second half, forcing Pittsburgh to become one-dimensional and into obvious passing situations.

As a result, New England was able to rotate fresh defensive personnel into the game at a rate that would impress a hockey coach, with linebackers Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Hightower each garnering about 50% of the snaps in a two man rotation, with strong safety Chung reducing down to the second level to punk James coming off the line.

That kind of rotation is normally reserved for the Patriots' defensive line to keep the big uglies up front fresh for the stretch run in each ball game - and it works.  All one has to do is to look at some very basic stats to see just how effective that scheme is.

In the last five games, the Patriots' defense has allowed a combined 21 points in the second half, surrendering just two touchdowns, one of them the garbage time scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Cobi Hamilton, and have generated an astounding 14 turnovers, the majority of them coming in the second half when their concentration is broken by being exhausted while the Patriots are rested and focused.

That's what happened to both of New England's playoff opponents, not to mention the number of times that the Patriots have held their opponents on downs late in games, simply because they had more gas in their tank.

So what they did against the Steelers was predictable, kind of an old "Rope-a-Dope" mentality where you take the opponent's best shot, let them wear themselves out, then stomp them like a grape - and it works on both sides of the ball.  Brady had the Patriots up to the line and had the ball in his hands with 15 seconds or more left on the play clock to limit both the time the Steelers had to substitute and to get lined up for the play...

...several times catching Pittsburgh's defenders out of position, most notably on both of Hogan's touchdowns and on a key pass to fullback James Develin for a first down. When one team has the talent, proper scheme and incredible depth, the advantage is with them and the score is usually lopsided.

It's almost unfair.  Almost.

The Patriots can't be blamed for being the more talented, better prepared and better conditioned team, because that's what the game is all about - and is why the Patriots are on their way to Houston, armed with an air of invincibility, a most advantageous intangible indeed...

1 comment:

  1. TYPO ALERT: Hogan had nine receptions, not eight, against Pittsburgh.