Chris Hogan of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Mass.(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Note to self: never pick against the New England Patriots again. Especially if they’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The beating Mike Tomlin’s team took in Foxborough should have been as predictable as it was humiliating.
You probably found yourself saying, “I’ve seen this movie before,” when the Pats turned up the tempo on their first drive and left the Steelers’ defense sucking wind. It was a time-honored formula that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have previously employed, with spectacular results, against the Steelers.
Apparently, the only party caught off-guard by the move was the Pittsburgh’s defense, with linebacker Bud Dupree admitting that New England’s tempo on the game’s opening drive surprised Keith Butler and his charges.
The Pats’ pace neutralized any chance the Steelers had of generating a consistent pass rush, not that their scheme seemed predicated on one, anyway. They frequently dropped seven or eight men into coverage, daring Brady to beat their zone. This would be well and good if it wasn’t a well-established fact that Brady torches zones.
In truth, though, no scheme was likely to slow down the Patriots’ offense. The only way to do that is to simply win one-on-one matchups and collapse the pocket, like Von Miller and the Denver Broncos did last year. The Steelers don’t have a Von Miller.
Thing is, as bad as the defense was, this game wasn’t necessarily all about them.
Not many, if any, people who picked the Steelers did so because of some overriding faith in their defense. They picked them to win because of their offense. And, in an all-too-familiar scenario, for a variety of reasons, that offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
Le’Veon Bell got hurt. Or was already hurt, and the Steelers knew it, and therefore dressed Fitzgerald Toussaint, who in normal circumstances would not warrant a “hat” for a game of this magnitude, or any game, really. Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton both dropped catchable, well-thrown passes. Hamilton’s drop took points directly off the board. Coates’ changed the complexion of the game early on.
The Steelers were stuffed on first-and-goal from the 1-foot line. Roethlisberger, when asked on the "Cook and Poni Show" on 93.7 The Fan about the possibility of a QB sneak in that situation, said, "the plays come in from coach Haley, and I call them."
Typical. When the play works, Roethlisberger frequently seems to be the guy who made the call. When it doesn't, he's only too happy to pass the buck to Haley. Ben also said he is more than happy to sneak the ball, and that his success rate is high, in the high nineties, percentage-wise. Mike Tomlin, asked whether Roethlisberger has the freedom to run a sneak in that situation, simply said, "yes."
So why didn't he? Why was it, "the plays come in from coach Haley, and I call them," in that situation? Only Ben knows, apparently.
And people in this town like to question Tom Brady's toughness and willingness to take hits. Brady, thirty-five pounds lighter and an inch shorter than Roethlisberger, has never been shy about diving forward to pick up a yard for his team.
That’s really the difference, in a nutshell, when it comes down to it. The Steelers have the unique, spectacular stars. We fawn over Bell’s incredible moves, Antonio Brown’s precision, Roethlisberger’s singular physical attributes and skill set. We hypothesize about what this team might do if and when all the pieces are in place on offense.
The Patriots just go out and win. They win better than anyone else. No one speaks glowingly of how flashy or incredible they are, save Brady. No one waxes poetic about the beauty of watching LeGarrette Blount run, or Julian Edelman catch eight-yard passes.
There isn’t anything all that elegant about the Pats. They are a model of ruthless efficiency, tailoring their game plan differently every week, the only real goal being the complete destruction of the opposition.
As Blount said after the game, no one complains about the potential for wild fluctuations in the number of touches they get on a week to week basis, because everyone is treated the same, up to and including Brady.
The Steelers make for great feature pieces and spectacular highlights. The Patriots stack victories. The Steelers like to play “their game”, come hell or high water. The Patriots don’t assume that “their way” will work every time, so they tweak constantly.
And as was proven emphatically Sunday night, when the two teams meet, the Steelers get humiliated, and the Patriots get the last laugh.
Chris Mueller is co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.