Saturday, December 16, 2017
Friday, December 15, 2017
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
By Steve Buckley
December 13, 2017
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Thank you, Miami Dolphins, for ramping up the volume to Sunday’s big Patriots-Steelers showdown at Heinz Field.
We can talk all we want about why the Pats lost Monday night — Tom Brady went off the cliff (Max Kellerman: Right again!), the Pats seemed to lack energy, Rob Gronkowski, Marcus Cannon and Trey Flowers were out of the lineup, etc. — but it still brings us to the same place. And that place is Pittsburgh.
It’s true that Sunday’s game was going to be must-see TV anyway, with or without the Pats’ stink bomb 27-20 loss to the Dolphins Monday night. Pats-Steelers may be several notches below Pats-Jets or Pats-Broncos, but it’s enough of a rivalry that most New England fans can recite past scores, as well as past score-settling.
This is partly because both teams have been very good for a very long time. But let’s not forget that little breach of decorum back in January 2002, when, in the run-up to the AFC title game, the Pats perceived the Steelers as being a little too public about their travel plans to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
Not to mention that, after the Pats emerged with a 24-17 victory, Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart made this unfortunate remark: “It’s frustrating because we were that close, but the best team doesn’t always win sometimes.”
So there’s some there there.
But because of what happened against the Dolphins Monday night at Whatever They’re Calling It This Week Stadium, there’s one element that’ll be missing on Sunday. For the lack of any way to put it, let’s just call it . . . Patriot Nation Hubris.
The major flaw in the Pats-Steelers rivalry is that it’s mostly been one of those hammer-and-nail jobs. The Pats almost always beat the Steelers. If we limit the discussion to games started by Tom Brady — and, really, that’s all that matters — the Pats are 10-2 against the Steelers, including a 3-0 record in playoff encounters.
As recently as three weeks ago, all signs pointed to Sunday’s game being more of the same. Brady was going to throw touchdown passes, Gronk was going to spike the ball a couple of times, and, when it was over, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was going to be wanting to exchange registrations with the make-believe truck that hit him.
Anyone feel that way right now?
This isn’t some sky-is-falling, hot-takish, click-baity Death Ride I’m taking you on. I believe the Patriots are (probably) the better team. I believe the Pats will (probably) win on Sunday. And I (heartily) believe Tomlin will pull some kind of zone-defense lever that creates implausible opportunities for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Tomlin's so pumped for this game that he was blathering about 'fireworks" even before the Pats were next on the schedule, something that should scare Steelers fans, not Pats fans.
And yet . . .
Don’t know about you, but the highlight of Monday’s game took place in the third quarter, when Pats safety Duron Harmon was seen delivering a dose of shake-the-ground, peel-the-wallpaper oratory at his defensive comrades. It was breathtaking to behold, as one could easily see that Harmon had the laser-beam focus of his teammates. And tell me you didn’t notice that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, a man considered to be one of the very best in the business, stood in rapt silence as Harmon spoke, understanding the importance and necessity of what was happening.
When Harmon held one of these fireside chats during Super Bowl LI, it worked. It didn’t quite work this time, but that he had to do it at all — against the Dolphins — is something Pats fans might want to file away for future discussion.
The Pats simply haven’t been much in the looks department the last couple of weeks. Brady really did look bad against the Dolphins (Max Kellerman: Right again!), and it really did hurt not to have Gronkowski out there. (Obligatory note: Gronk is a great guy and not a dirty player!!! And the week off will make him stronger for the playoffs!!!)
The Steelers, meanwhile — you know, the nail to the Pats’ hammer — keep piling up win after win after win, including back-to-back, hard-fought victories over divisional opponents.
Two weeks ago, Pats-Steelers had the look, the feel, of a New England coronation. The Pats were going to win, win big, and in doing so claim top-dog status in the AFC and the home-field playoff status that comes with it.
It’s all different now in that the Pats can’t just sit back and wait for the Steelers to screw up.
This time, the Pats have to play great football, something that’s been in short supply the last couple of weeks.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
By ANDY BENOIT
December 11, 2017
Little has been said about what Ryan Shazier’s absence means for Pittsburgh on the field. And rightfully so; football is so trivial when juxtaposed with Shazier’s current reality that even writing this sort of analytical article feels uncomfortable.
And yet, there’s still a season to play. And the Steelers are still contenders. And Shazier, even if it’s lower on his priority list now than at this time last week, still cares how the Steelers finish. After Sunday night’s shootout victory over Baltimore, the 25-year-old linebacker joined his teammates’ revelry via FaceTime.
That revelry won’t repeat often if tweaks aren’t made. The hard truth: Pittsburgh’s defense is gargantuanly weaker without Shazier, a potential first-team All-Pro linebacker. Last Monday night, the Steelers gave up 130 rushing yards to a bad Bengals ground attack that was mostly minus its best component, running back Joe Mixon. Cincy simply spread out and ran inside zone again and again. Sunday night, the Ravens rushed for 152 yards against Pittsburgh, as running back Alex Collins bounced outside and turned the corner again and again. Normally, Shazier rocketing around that corner.
Shazier is the most explosive, dynamic stack linebacker in football. Sometimes his aggression creates big plays for the offense, but usually it just makes them for the defense. The Steelers still have a D-line, but telling Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward to step up, or T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree to elevate their play on the edges, isn’t enough. Those guys are already playing great. Someone still must make the plays behind them. So far, no one has.
It will take two men to replace Shazier, and that’s not referring to rotating Sean Spence and Arthur Moats, subpar fill-ins who are splitting duties alongside stalwart starter Vince Williams. You need two men as in Spence or Moats and an extra body in the box. Most likely, that’d be versatile second-year safety Sean Davis.
This past summer, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about the importance of playing more man coverage. “We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots”, Butler said on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan. “You look at the people who have beaten the Patriots in the past and a lot of them played man-to-man. I think the last time we beat them [in 2011] we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”
In last year’s AFC title game, the Patriots spread out and picked apart the Steelers’ widened zones with receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan inside. That was with Shazier on the field. You can bet that prepping for the crucial Week 15 showdown, the Patriots are giddy to spread out and match receivers against Spence and Moats (or, if it’s an obvious passing situation, linebacker L.J. Fort).
Now is the time for Butler—who has done a great job calling matchup zones this season including on blitzes - to follow through on the man coverage plans. To stop New England's multifaceted ground game (which is a much bigger part of that offense than people realize), the Steelers must bring an extra defender into the box. The downside is this leaves more space outside. More space means wider zones, which was the problem in last year’s AFC championship. A defense’s counter is to press.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In man coverage, your players still have to win against their man. To be ready for this moment, the Steelers signed Joe Haden in late summer. But Haden has been out since fracturing his leg on November 12. If he doesn’t return this Sunday, Pittsburgh has a problem. Second-year corner Artie Burns has had a stellar season on the right side, but on the left, Coty Sensabaugh has been erratic, and the team knows little about the man who has taken some of Sensabaugh’s snaps, third-round rookie Cameron Sutton (Sunday against Baltimore was Sutton’s second NFL game). All it takes to fell man coverage is one weak link.
The alternative, though, is zone, where a weak link in the middle of your defense can result in failure like what we’ve seen. It doesn’t have to be lockdown man coverage, just physical man coverage. Beat New England’s receivers at the snap and Tom Brady must hold the ball. That gets precarious against a Steelers five-man rush that’s much stronger than when these teams met a year ago.
That five-man rush is much weaker than it was a month ago now that it’s best interior blitzer is gone. And so is the man coverage overall, for that matter, given that the super blitzer was also the only defender with enough athleticism to cover detached running backs like James White and Rex Burkhead. And when Shazier wasn’t bogging down in a man matchup, he served as a terrifying middle-field patroller.
Maybe Pittsburgh’s plan needs to just be what it wound up being against Baltimore: Give the ball to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and hope to score around 40 points. Because the more you think about Shazier’s on-field impact, the more ominous his absence appears. Of course, the more you think about Shazier’s off-field world, the less you the on-field stuff seems to matter.