When you bill a clash as the dress rehearsal for the AFC Championship game, you know it’s going to be good.
When you put Brady against Roethlisberger, you know it’s going to be great. When you’ve a series of plays like we saw last night, you know there’s going to be excitement.
Finally, when officials make decisions, you know there’s going to be drama. Let’s take a look at the final two minutes from Heinz Field last night.
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2017
Let’s start with the play that put the Patriots in control of this game. They’re down by five – but Brady’s managed to get them to midfield. He scans the defence and sees that his four receivers are each being ‘covered’ by an individual (arrows) with two safeties helping overtop (circles).
But something’s unusual, Rob Gronkowski is lined up in the slot against five-foot-nine corner Mike Hilton. He sends the tight end in motion, and Hilton follows him – keeping up the disguise. The Steelers rolled the dice here – and they lost.
Pittsburgh disguised the above to look like Cover 2, when in fact it’s a zone blitz, with only one safety playing deep. This play is designed to engage left tackle Nate Solder with edge pressure, before Hilton gets a clean shot on Brady. He misses, and Gronkowski finds the soft spot in the coverage.
The Patriots connected with Gronk again to bring them to the ten-yard line. Here, the Steelers used a time out and for simple game management purposes, you want to run the ball to ensure that, should you score, the Steelers have as little time as possible to respond.
The Steelers are forced to defend the pass, though, with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola lined up to the weak side of the formation. Brady likes his chances, so his line ‘pinch’ the Pittsburgh front, and running back Dion Lewis skips past the nine-versus-eight blocking matchup to waltz in for six.
Of course, to get a field goal between them, they opt for a two-point conversion. They line up as above and Brady can hardly believe his eyes. He sees Gronkowski in single coverage – towering over the opposing cornerback. He thinks it may be a disguise, so he sends Amendola (circled) in motion to see if a corner follows him:
He did. Some teams never learn. You don’t need to be told what happened next. The Patriots are up by three.
The Steelers have fifty-two seconds, though. They also have a timeout, and don’t have to run anything too ambitious. Roethlisberger opens up with four wide receivers in the pistol formation (running back offset).
He motions Jesse James to see if it’s man coverage and it is. The key to this play is the clean-up route run by Bell (26). He pulls the middle linebacker out of a spot, allowing JuJu Smith-Schuster (second from top) to beat his man underneath. This play, because of bad tackling, goes for seventy yards.
The Patriots had been using mismatches all game, and have been for the bones of fifteen years. On the controversial play, Bell is split out (orange) and he attracts not only his man, but the safety behind him – leaving a possible pick play on over the middle against the single safety (blue) using Smith-Schuster and James (white). They both run the same route and different depth points – but Smith-Schuster blocks him off (below) for James to catch the ball and break the plane.
The controversy came, of course, when James was adjudged to have failed to control the ball, and therefore not ‘surviving the ground’ – incomplete pass.
The Steelers, even still, had three attempts to score and nearly thirty seconds in which to do it. That’s a lot of time when you’re passing the ball.
However, after taking pressure on second down, Roethlisberger threw a short dump-off to Darrius Heyward-Bey and he failed to get out of bounds. That’s the one that forced them into the situation above.
With the clock still running, Roethlisberger has an awful attempt a fake spike to try and fool the Patriots. It doesn’t work, and he opts to throw a suicide pass into traffic in the centre of the end zone.
If Eli Rogers runs towards the sideline, he’s one-on-one and a low-risk fade route at worst gives you a stopped clock. Instead, he inexplicably tries the slant route where a batted ball pops into the air for Duron Harmon to intercept and win the game.
Simple as that really…