PITTSBURGH Candor was going to be in short supply in the Patriots locker room Sunday evening.
So instead of going in there to be served the simple pablum of gotta look at the film and gotta play better and they did some good things out there and we have a lot of work to do, I chose to go to the Steelers locker room.
In there, I hoped, insight into what exactly the Patriots were attempting to do on defense might be gained. It was easy to see what they werent doing: Covering eligible receivers. But what appeared to be their plan?
I didnt even get to their locker room before I was getting answers. Hines Ward, who didnt play on Sunday because of an ankle injury, laid it out for me in the hallway outside the Steelers locker room.
Offensively, it felt like we could spread the ball out and we didnt have to take shots down the field, Ward explained. We felt like our wide-receiver corps could take advantage of the secondary. Considering they didnt really have a huge pass rusher, it gave us time to go spread. It was a great game plan and we just executed.
Last years 39-26 Patriots win was the catalyst for Sundays game plan laid out by Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
We watched the game last year and that game could have been closer than it was, said Ward. It was more what we were doing than what they were doing. We felt like, especially with Leigh Bodden, when we found out he wasnt there, with our wide-receivers corps, thats probably the strength of our team in terms of having depth. We felt like we could exploit and take advantage of the secondary coverage.
Exploit would be an understatement.
From the first drive, when tight end Heath Miller was allowed to roam free in the yawning space between the blitzing Patriots front and the deep-dropping secondary, the Patriots were maddeningly ineffective, especially on third down.
The Steelers converted a third-and-11, a third-and-12 and a third-and-15 during the day as part of a game in which they went 10-for-16 on third down and Ben Roethlisberger put it in the air 50 times.
Going into the game, everybody had success throwing the ball against them because those guys were 32 (in the league against the pass), explained Mike Wallace. Some of it was because of those guys running up the score and teams trying to catch up (and gaining yards) but you still dont get there, last (in the league against the pass), by just blowing people out. Other people had success against them.
The bulk of the success against the Patriots came in the first three games. They seemed to settle down against Oakland and neither the Jets nor the Cowboys did enough to challenge a secondary that seemed ripe for abuse.
The Steelers carried no such illusions about the Patriots secondary being a daunting group. The Patriots strategy of blitzing Roethlisberger, playing deep zone coverage and making the Steelers think their way down the field blew up in their faces.
"We knew we had a great matchup and that theyd play zone coverage and give us an opportunity to hit em across the middle," said wide receiver Antonio Brown. "Heath Miller did a great job getting open across the middle, we did a great job of converting third downs and controlling the ball.
I think they just wanted to blitz Ben. Get Ben confused and thinking the younger guys wouldnt be on point with the hots (hot routes that are broken off when blitzes are sent). I think that was their aim and I think we did a great job counteracting that. They played zone coverage (because they were) scared that Mike Wallace was gonna get deep. That allowed us to get the middle open and make some big plays on third down.
Aside from the scheme, though, there seemed to be a matter of poor communication in the zones. Safeties could be seen gesturing after plays to each other trying to figure who missed a read. Often, it seemed there were defenders leaving receivers to go cover targets who were already being attended to. The 7-yard Antonio Brown touchdown was a perfect example where two defenders were bird-dogging Wallace and Brown was left completely alone.
And the tackling? Still woeful.
Patriots safety Patrick Chung tried to keep a stiff upper lip after the game, saying, We gotta keep playing. Whatever coach Bill Belichick wants to do, well do. Were a good football team, Im not worried about all that stuff.
The release of Bodden on Friday and this performance Sunday really underscores how weak the Patriots are at corner. Antwaun Molden, who got most of the early reps that were normally Boddens, was benched. Devin McCourty continues to struggle, this time with tackling. Its an alarming spot to be in entering the eighth week of the year.
The Patriots better adapt and do so quickly, because after Sundays performance, any offensive coordinator who doesnt attack the New England secondary is plainly not doing his job.