by Christopher Price
New head coach. New players. Same old over-aggressive Steelers.
When it came to beating Pittsburgh Sunday, the Patriots appeared to take a page out of their old offensive philosophy that worked for them in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, a 41-27 win over the Steelers. Want to beat Pittsburgh? Use its hyper-aggressive defensive tendencies to your advantage.
On Sunday, both big plays — a 56-yarder and a 63-yarder — came after some chicanery, with one coming on a play-action fake and another coming after a pair of laterals. Both plays had the Pittsburgh secondary headed in the wrong direction, and New England took advantage both times, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
“Those are plays that are part of our offense, so we run them,” Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick shrugged Monday when asked about the two plays that combined for 119 of Tom Brady’s 399 total passing yards. “We’ve run them in the past.”
The Patriots certainly aren’t the only team to use play-action and misdirection to their advantage, and the Steelers aren’t the first team to fall for an occasional fake. But when the New England and Pittsburgh meet on the big stage, the Patriots have a way of making the Steelers look foolish. That was certainly the case in the 2004 AFC Championship, when New England set the tone on the first play from scrimmage — a keyed-up Pittsburgh defense was thrown into reverse when Brady faked a handoff to Corey Dillon and slipped the ball to Deion Branch, who carried it 14 yards on an end around to set up an early score. Later in the game, it was another play-action fake that had Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu fooled, giving Branch just enough separation to score on a 60-yard pass play.
On Sunday, the Patriots used the same approach, diffusing the Pittsburgh attacking defense with misdirection and getting big yards as a result. With 14:16 left in the second quarter and facing a 1st and 10 on its own 37, New England manufactured a sweet play-action fake where Brady and Randy Moss connected on a 63-yard touchdown. On that play, both safety Anthony Smith and cornerback Ike Taylor bit hard on Brady’s excellent fake, despite the fact that New England clearly wasn’t interested in running the football — they had just nine rushes plays on the night. Moss was left running cleanly down the middle of the field, with no defender within 10 yards of him as he crossed the goal line.
Play-action forces defensive backs into making a split-second decision. And, as they did in 2004, the Pittsburgh defenders — who are always trained to attack, attack, attack — chose wrong.
“I think that’s the decision that the defensive backs have to make — whether they want to try to come up and help in the running game, or whether they want to stay back, create more space in the running game and defend the deeper part of the field,” Belichick said. “But I think that the offensive line and the ball handling and all, it was good action. It sold the play pretty well.”
The Patriots used misdirection to their advantage again in the third. With 10:17 remaining in the quarter, New England was leading 17-13, and in another 1st and 10 situation, this time on its own 44. Brady made a quick lateral to Moss, who, after a quick drop, returned it to Brady via another lateral. (As Brady tossed the ball to Moss, receiver Jabar Gaffney abruptly stopped his downfield running in an attempt to sell the fake even further.) The back-and-forth again froze the Pittsburgh secondary. As a result, Smith was a step behind wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, and the ball dropped softly into Gaffney’s hands for a 56-yard touchdown.
“It was well-executed,” Belichick said of the play, called the “Ravens special,” according to Gaffney. “It’s a play that we’ve practiced a few times, and it came in handy.
“It was a nice job by [Jabar] Gaffney, really selling it, and Moss by dropping the ball, I think that really gave it a little more draw. I wish I could take credit for that, but that wasn’t part of the play.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. Record breakers. There are only about a half-million different offensive records Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the rest of the Patriots could break on Sunday. Our favorite is the fact that with three games left on their schedule, New England is now just 53 points away from tying the all-time single season scoring record for a team. (The 1998 Vikings hold the all-time mark with 556.)
2. Carryover on the field from Week 1. We know about the relationship between the coaches, but there doesn’t seem to be a healthy amount of enmity between the players. In the wake of “SpyGate,” none of the Jets’ players have uttered a discouraging word about the Patriots, and no one has been able to provide much bulletin-board material. We’ll see if that changes this week.
3. Fast starts. It would appear that the best shot New York has in this game lies in them getting a fast start. If they are able to score on their first possession and hold the Patriots without a touchdown on their opening drive — a tall order, yes, but not unreasonable — then, the Jets might have a shot to make it interesting. But if New York goes three-and-out and New England puts a quick seven on the board, it’s going to be a long afternoon for Gang Green.
4. The inevitable appearance of Mercury Morris on whatever pregame show will have him. As a member of the media, I take no pleasure in writing this. But with the Patriots standing at 13-0 and only the Jets, Dolphins and Giants in the way, expect Morris to show up on every channel except The Food Network over the next few weeks proclaiming the ’72 Dolphins are still better than this New England team. Morris’s 15 minutes of fame have long passed, but the former Miami running back is milking this undefeated thing for all it’s worth, going down with the ship like no other member of that team save Don Shula.
5. The betting line. On Monday, it vacillated between 24 and 27. By the end of the day, it appeared to rest at 26, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Jets Head Coach Eric Mangini said the line wouldn’t have an effect on the game. “The point spread and things like that really aren’t going to affect the outcome, how we do or how they do,” Mangini said at his news conference. “It’s really going to be a function of how well we prepare and get ready for the game.”
STAT OF THE WEEK
80. The Steelers are nothing if not committed to the run. Despite trailing by 18 points in the second half on the road, Pittsburgh stuck with its decision to dominate on the ground. As a result, of its 181 total rushing yards on the afternoon, a whopping 80 of them came after it had fallen behind 31-13 late in the third quarter.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“We’ll just come out and try to play hard. Hopefully, we can do something and not get beat bad.” — Jets defensive back Kerry Rhodes, speaking with reporters about this week’s game.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].