Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who Are We Kidding?

He's the problem.
This is going to be a long post, sigh, because we have to talk about the offense of the Boston New England Patriots. There's no way around it.

Boston's offense leads the NFL with 474.5 total yards per game, including 350.5 yards passing. They average 30.8 points per game.

Sounds like the Steelers are going to have to score at least 31 points this Sunday. Hmmm, let's seee ...

Before we discuss in a subsequent post the Patriots' 32nd-rated defense, last in the NFL, we have to face up to The Tom Brady Problem. Brady is the fulcrum of the Patriots' multifarious offensive attack vectors. (ya like that? ... "offensive attack vectors" -- that's information-security-speak).

Brady and the Patriots excel at creating mismatches, and they've done it especially well against the Steelers, who have beaten Brady only once in seven tries. He always seems to know what the Steelers are going to do on defense.

Brady and the Patriots own them. He knows it; they know it; everybody knows it. 

What can we expect from New England? Accepted wisdom and historical evidence points to the Patriots' methodical, pass-heavy attack used in past victories over the Steelers, which employed tactics including but not limited to ...
  • Spread formations
  • Quick huddles and a snappy pace limiting defensive substitutions and controlling the pace of the game
  • Liberal use of the dual tight ends forcing linebackers James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley into pass coverage instead of their usual pass-rush roles
  • Short drops and quick releases
  • Wes Welker out of the slot
  • Lots of crossing routes
  • Occasional screens and outlet passes to the running backs (mostly to BenJarvus Green-Ellis [also known as The Law Firm] and rookie Stevan Ridley, who more or less share the role formerly held by the estimable Kevin Faulk)
  • Occasional bombs down field to Deion Branch -- might we even see a Chad Johnson-Ochocinco-Johnson sighting this week?

Until they prove otherwise ...
There's no reason to think the Patriots will deviate from these tactics, although it is a bit unnerving to speculate what they might have come up with during the bye week. You just know they're going to add some wrinkles and surprises -- we wouldn't be at all surprised to see Welker or Branch line up as a running back before going in motion and running a pattern into the Steelers' secondary, just as a distraction. And it's entirely possible they have something crazy planned for finally getting Chad Ochocinco involved in the offense -- a wildcat formation? Not likely the wildcat, but who knows?

So much what the Patriots do on offense is predicated on disguise and masks. How appropriate for Halloween weekend.
Aaron Hernandez catches the game-winning TD vs. Dallas.

For all that, we expect the Patriots will attack the deep middle of the field with their dual tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom pose match-up nightmares for the Steelers. They did last time these two teams met.

That's not to say Gronkowski and Hernandez are Bardy's primary targets. To say Brady has a single receiver as his primary option is pointless, but Welker is it. He leads the NFL in catches and yards receiving, so he must be it. 

The Patriots are the only team perhaps in NFL history to have their primary receiving target operate out of the slot. Welker does it better than anybody. His numbers this year indicate he might be the best receiver in the NFL. The Patriots get the ball to him about 10 times every week, and he averages 15.8 yards per catch. Welker is s a problem.

Welker is a problem, but so are Gronkowski, Hernandez, Branch, Julius Edelman, Ridley, Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and potentially Chad Ochocinco. And, of course, Brady. He is the problem. 

Always calm, poised and composed.
Whatever the Steelers have tried on defense against the Patriots hasn't been working. The Steelers have no choice but to try something different. Players like Casey Hampton, Larry Foote and James Farrior -- and even Harrison and Woodley -- have had a way of becoming non-factors in games against New England, which barely makes a pretense of running the ball. The Patriots simply refuse to play to the Steelers' strengths, and why should they? What they've been doing has been working. Why should they do anything different? ... other than a few new wrinkles and looks.

Maybe the Steelers should abandon so much emphasis on zone coverage. Maybe they should play their corners up close on the wide-outs. Maybe they should assign Troy Polamulu to shadow Welker and Ike Taylor to shadow Branch. Maybe they should use an all-out pass rush all the time. It's not like Brady's going to roll out or scramble much. You know where he's going to be. On the other hand, he gets rid of the ball quickly and with pinpoint accuracy.

Maybe the Steelers should just plan to score a ton of points.

Maybe this, maybe that. To quote Charles Barkley, "If ifs and buts were beer and nuts, we'd have a helluva party."

How are the Steelers going to stop this team?  Who are we kidding? ... they're not going to stop the Patriots' offense. The Steelers need to outscore 'em.