Monday, January 23, 2017

Patriots take advantage of Steelers’ dismal defense

Pats have upper ‘hand’ as Curtain falls on Pitt

January 23, 2017

Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — In the 1970s, the Steelers’ defense was called the “Steel Curtain.” These days, at least when they play the Patriots, it should be called the “Hand Up’’ defense because that’s what always seems to happen — some receiver is running through the middle of it with his hand up.

Last night that was most often wide receiver Chris Hogan, although he was not alone. Actually he was nearly always alone but the few times he wasn’t, somebody else had their hand up because they were running free, too.

The Steelers secondary seemed to believe that “free release” meant what it does on Charlie Moore’s fishing show on NESN. Just let the poor thing go.

Hogan had his hand up so often last night that if he’d been in Mrs. Tomlin’s civics class she would have said “Sit down, Chris and give someone else a chance.” But he wasn’t in Mrs. Tomlin’s civics class. He was running all around Mr. Tomlin’s secondary and baffled Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t think of any way to make him sit down and be quiet.

Maybe if Tomlin had another day and a half to prepare he would have come up with something but now that I think about it he did come up with something. He came up with a ready-made excuse for why his pass defense looked like it had no idea what it was supposed to be doing, having complained after winning a divisional round playoff game in Kansas City last week that the Patriots (although he used a less flattering term involving a portion of their derriere to describe them) had been given an unfair advantage by having played the night before at home and would not have to travel for last night’s AFC Championship Game.

Instead of making locker room speeches of the “oh poor us” variety in a whining tone, Tomlin might have been wiser to have been reminding defensive coordinator Keith Butler that not covering a receiver at all — or pairing up a linebacker who can no longer run like James Harrison on Julian Edelman — were more than a little unwise.

Tom Brady is the master of many things but none more than finding the receiver the other team forgets to cover. This is especially true when that receiver is so open he thrusts his hand in the air and begins waving as enthusiastically as Donald Trump was when Barack Obama’s helicopter lifted off the ground Friday afternoon.

“It comes down to execution,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. “Anytime you play New England you know they operate with a lot of detail. It’s important that your execution matches that detail level. We didn’t do it today.”

Well, actually defensively they did execute. They executed themselves and of all the hangmen who helped them put the noose around their neck the most obvious — to everyone but them — was Hogan. In the end, Hogan caught nine passes for a team postseason record 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-17 drubbing of the Steelers that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl for a NFL-record ninth time to face the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in two weeks at NRG Stadium in Houston.

It marks the seventh time in the Brady-Belichick Era that they’ve ended up in the Super Bowl, which left Bill Belichick at the top of the coaching food chain as the coach with the most appearances in the big game, and he got there this time in large part because he signed a restricted free agent the Bills didn’t want to pay last March. That’s what makes the Bills the Bills and Bill Bill.

Ten months later, the Steelers showed as much interest in Hogan as the Bills had. The Bills didn’t covet him and the Steelers didn’t cover him, the latter beginning with a 27-yard reception out of a last-second alignment change early in the game that left the Steelers’ defense flat-footed and confounded. It was a position they assumed quite often.

On the same drive Hogan scored on a 16-yard touchdown throw in which he ran deep through Pittsburgh’s secondary and found himself so open he was waving his arm in the end zone while linebacker Bud Dupree and safety Robert Golden stood well to his left, covering the goal post. When Brady easily found Hogan, the two defenders seemed so confused they didn’t even know who should be pointing accusatory fingers at whom.

Later, Hogan would beat them on a similarly wide-open route for a 34-yard touchdown off a flea flicker in which half the Steeler defense rushed headlong toward the line of scrimmage as Dion Lewis turned and flipped the ball back to Brady.

As Hogan was running a deep crossing route, safety Mike Mitchell sprinted toward the line of scrimmage for 5 yards as Hogan ran right by him. As he did, Mitchell slammed on the brakes and turned to retreat but he was now 3 yards behind the play and that’s where he stayed as Hogan ran free, hand in the air, for as easy a touchdown throw as Brady will ever see.

Nothing would improve after halftime. At least not for the “Hand Up” defense. That’s what Hogan had when he ran a deep hook that turned around cornerback Artie Burns like he was a dreidel and it’s what he had on the next drive when he ran a deep in, beating cornerback William Gay, who didn’t seem too happy.

By then no one in Steeler colors was because soon the score climbed to 27-9 and although more than a quarter remained to play it was hands down obvious that the “Hand Up’’ defense would time and again let some Patriot run free.

“He just slipped behind our coverages,” Burns said later of Hogan, stating the obvious. “Brady was able to make the plays last longer and he was able to dump it off to him. Brady was just doing what Brady do, getting the ball to his guy and breaking down coverages.”

Indeed he do.

But Jack Brady, Tom’s 8-year-old son, could have completed some of those throws to Hogan. And that seemed to enrage Steeler linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who was last seen in the missing persons department himself.

“He shouldn’t be open at all,” Timmons barked. “They did a good job snapping the ball and getting us going while we were trying to get the calls in. They just did a good job snapping it fast.”

They did and the Steelers did a good job of thinking slow, which is why they’re going home and the Patriots are going to Houston.

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