When going back through the all-22 tape of the Pittsburgh Steelers 55-31 loss Sunday to the New England Patriots, I keep finding myself going back to the Patriots six-play scoring drive early in the second quarter as it really set the tone for the rest of the game.
The scariest thing about this drive is how the Patriots never used more than two wide receivers on any one play and never targeted them as well. They stretched the Steelers defense horizontally before finally popping them vertically for the touchdown.
On the opening play of the drive, the Patriots ran an inside wham play and the blocking was executed perfectly. At the snap, Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward is double-teamed and nose tackle Steve McLendon is whammed by the h-back. The Patriots center and right guard then get to the second level and swallow up linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams. It results in safety Ryan Clark and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley needing to make the tackle. It was only a four-yard gain, but it set the tone for the rest of the drive.
On the second play of the drive, the Patriots ran the outside zone to the left and once again the offensive line dominates the Steelers base front. Timmons overruns the play and once Heyward is cut block, running back Stevan Ridley has a huge cutback lane. A missed tackle by Clark allows for a 14-yard gain and a first down at midfield.
On the third play of the drive, the play call really catches the Steelers defense off guard. It looks like it is going to be an outside zone to the right this time, but instead, it is a misdirection pass to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who sneaks out right past Timmons for 17 yards. The play-action was a thing of beauty after two straight runs.
When something works, you go back to it and that is exactly what the Patriots did on the next play as they again run the outside zone to the left. This time, however, Heyward avoids the cut block and is in position to shut down the cut back lane.
On second and long, the Patriots do not panic as they stay with their 12 personnel which is countered by the Steelers base defense. I should also note that Shamarko Thomas is in the game at this point as strong safety because Clark was sidelined a few plays after being dinged up making the tackle on Hoomanawanui a few plays earlier. Do you think that the Patriots coaches up in the booth noticed this? This is stealing off of play-action as Thomas is no match for tight end Rob Gronkowsi on an out route in cover-3. Quarterback Tom Brady has the ball out in 2.5 seconds and the Patriots have another 13 yards and another first down.
Now for the dagger. This time the Patriots roll out their 13 personnel grouping and that screams run. This play is going to Gronkowski all the way. While linebacker Jarvis Jones does do a good job of carrying the big tight end up the seam, he allows a free release and Brady makes a perfect throw over the top of him before Troy Polamalu can get there.
That is as perfect of a drive as you will ever see and it all started with the Patriots being able to run the ball both inside and outside.