It happened again.
Steelers fans are all too familiar with what took place Sunday night in Foxborough. Yes, the Steelers offense struggled without Le’Veon Bell. Yes, Big Ben looked helpless as the Patriots blanketed Antonio Brown forcing him to bounce balls off of Sammie Coates’ hands and Cobi Hamilton’s chest. Scoring 17 points is never going to beat New England. Never.
That being said, I can give you some logical reasons why I’m not terribly concerned about the offense heading into next season, should the Steelers have to face Bill Belichick’s team in January.
- Obviously Le’Veon Bell leaving very early changed the whole dynamic offensively. DeAngelo Williams is great but Le’Veon Bell is on a whole different level.
- The Steelers’ biggest achilles heel on offense all season long was the lack of 2nd receiving option, and redzone scoring. I think Martavis Bryant returning solves both of those issues. Antonio Brown might be the best receiver in the league and I think Bryant could be in the top 10. Eli Rogers becomes even more dangerous with those 2 demanding so much attention from a defense.
- Ladarius Green getting healthy could also help with the above issues. I expect the Steelers to really evaluate Green closely this off-season, and if they feel they can’t count on him will go out and find a similar threat at the position.
- The Steelers offensive line became one of the best blocking units in the NFL down the stretch. The improvement particularly by Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster solidified an already talented starting 5. BJ Finney, Chris Hubbard, and Jerald Hawkins look to be quality backups as well.
That offense, to me, is more than enough to win a championship. On the other side of the ball, I do think that there are reasons to expect improvement as well.
- The 3 rookies this season; Burns, Davis, and Hargrave should continue to get more comfortable with NFL speed and continue their upward trajectory.
- Year 3 is historically when most edge rushers break out. I’d expect Bud Dupree to make a big jump forward in his development next year.
- MAYBE this is the year Senquez Golson gets on the field, and could add some needed athleticism to the slot, that may be expecting too much though.
- Cam Heyward returning will be a huge upgrade.
- The Steelers should add at least 1 young athletic edge defender, that could potentially bring some energy off the bench.
Those are the positives, but here’s the negative… I don’t think even with those expected improvements this team has a real chance at beating the Patriots when it really counts.
Schematically, the Steelers defense is just not a good matchup against a Quarterback like Brady, and to me it doesn’t matter who you have in the system. Some have told me the team just needs to get better on the edge, or get better in the secondary. Tom Brady used to carve up a defense that had Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Ike Taylor IN THEIR PRIMES. I’m sorry, this scheme just does not work regardless of who’s in it.
Matchups matter. The Denver Broncos defense in 2015 looked unstoppable, yet the Steelers offense really took it to them in 2 games that season. You know why? Their scheme was a great matchup for the Steelers. The Broncos play a lot of man coverage, and Antonio Brown in particular is just too hard for any one defender to stay with. AB was able to take advantage of that while Ben buys time and their playground ball mentality really just shreds man coverage. The Colts are another team that relies on a lot of man and we’ve seen what Ben’s done to them the past few years.
On the flip side, the Broncos really put the clamps on Brady in last year’s AFC Championship because the Patriots receivers thrive on precision and rhythm more-so than being physically great at beating their man. The Broncos cornerbacks were able to bully the Pats receivers which kept Brady from dropping and releasing quickly, and thus getting hit a lot more.
I just don’t think that the Steelers defense is ever going to seriously challenge Tom Brady and the Patriots as long as they stick to their zones in the secondary; and I have more than a decade’s worth of historical data that backs that up.
I think that for the Steelers to get back to the Superbowl, it’s an almost certainty that they’ll need to knock off the Patriots in the process. Which is why I think that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to take a hard look at their defensive scheme this off-season and make some adjustments. I know that the Steelers have spent a lot of time building what they have and I’m not suggesting they blow that up, but I do think they need to make a more concentrated effort to mix up their coverages and look for players that have the flexibility to work in multiple schemes.
I really think that guys like Burns and Cockrell could play more man coverage if asked. Not exclusively, but mix things up… Just do something to make Brady have to think a little bit back there. If you can make him hesitate, then suddenly guys like Dupree, Harrison, and Tuitt can actually be involved (unlike Sunday).
It may seem extreme to center your decisions around beating one team, but I think if you can build a roster to beat the Patriots you’re going to fare pretty well against the rest of the league as well. When you play a QB that takes more risks or has more physical receivers (Andy Dalton and AJ Green for example) you can absolutely play more how you have the past few years, but it’s nice to have something else up your sleeve when it’s needed.
Or… keep doing what you’re doing and expect a different outcome.