Patriots’ Bill Belichick outcoaches Mike Tomlin yet again
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Sunday’s AFC Championship Game was won days before the raucous Gillette Stadium crowd sang along to Bon Jovi during a kickoff, before Patriots broadcaster Scott Zolak sent them into a frenzy by holding up a “Where is Roger?” sign on the jumbotron.
The game was won by Tuesday, when coach Bill Belichick and his staff put the finishing touches on yet another Patriots game plan that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had no answer for. Home-field advantage is nice, but there is no advantage greater than being more prepared than your opponent. After seven conference titles in the last 16 years, Belichick keeps his group in line, one step ahead of the rest of the AFC.
From the very first drive Sunday, Belichick and Tom Brady set out to make Pittsburgh’s young secondary uncomfortable. New England opened the game in hyperspeed, often snapping the ball with more than 25 seconds left on the play clock, forcing the youngsters in the Steelers‘ secondary to make quick decisions under pressure unlike any they’ve ever experienced — and they crumbled.
“It’s something we’d seen on film that was going to work against them,” offensive tackle Nate Solder explained of the up-tempo approach, which carried over into the second half. “But it only works if you’re making completions.”
No matter how many Steelers dropped back in coverage, Brady found receivers wide open. Tomlin told Ross Tucker on Westwood One at halftime that his young guys were “scatterbrained.” The Patriots were 9 of 12 on third down through the first three quarters because Brady knew the Steelers‘ zone defense better than the Steelers did. Brady focused on Chris Hogan and Edelman because they were the open ones.
“No one cares who gets the ball,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “You may not get any passes, I don’t give a s—. I just want to win.”
Tomlin and his staff were outclassed, appearing to coach against the Patriots team they saw in Week 7. The Steelers did a great job shutting down New England’s running game, unlike in that October contest. But no coach is better at adjusting on the fly than Belichick, so the Patriots gave up on the run early.
The Steelers, on the other hand, stubbornly stayed in their soft zone pass defense all night. The Steelers coaches didn’t ask their cornerbacks to press the line of scrimmage to disrupt New England’s receivers early in their routes. Giving Brady the same looks repeatedly over 60 minutes is asking for a slow death. The only constant in a Belichick game plan is constant change.
The last few times the Steelers faced New England, Belichick left his best cornerback, Malcolm Butler, to fend with Antonio Brown in man coverage. This time, Belichick sent his two best defensive backs at Brown much of the night, with safety Devin McCourty over the top. During one goal-line sequence, the Patriots had three defenders on Brown’s side of the field with no other receiver in the area. The Patriots were determined to make young receivers Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates beat them on the outside, and they couldn’t oblige.