Steelers-Patriots game shouldn’t have been that close
Pittsburgh’s first-quarter TD should have been called back for ineligible players downfield
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ most controversial touchdown wasn’t the fourth-quarter “catch” by tight end Jesse James. Yes, the definition of a catch in the NFL is imperfect, but in that instance the rule was properly applied.
However, in the first quarter, the refs missed a call that should have taken a touchdown away from the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pretty ball just over the fingers of the New England Patriots defender into the hands of Eli Rogers for an 18-yard touchdown. But several Steelers offensive linemen were illegally downfield when the ball was caught. The play was a run-pass option. The quarterback can choose to hand the ball off to the running back or fake it to the back and throw it. If he chooses to throw he must do it quickly because, no matter what, the offensive line is run blocking, so the quarterback must throw the ball while the linemen are no more than a yard in front of the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger held the ball, as he is known to do. The refs missed the call, and the touchdown counted.
Here is the rule:
SECTION 3 INELIGIBLE PLAYER DOWNFIELD
ARTICLE 1. LEGAL AND ILLEGAL ACTS. On a scrimmage play during which a legal forward pass is thrown, an ineligible offensive player, including a T-formation quarterback, is not permitted to move more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the pass has been thrown.
Properly enforcing that rule is important. Experienced defenders avoid being duped by play-action because they read offensive linemen rather than waiting to see whether the ball is actually handed off. If the refs are not going to call that, defenses will be at a great disadvantage.
Item 1. Legally Downfield. An ineligible player is not illegally downfield if, after initiating contact with an opponent within one yard of the line of scrimmage during his initial charge:
(a) he moves more than one yard beyond the line while legally blocking or being blocked by an opponent
(b) after breaking legal contact with an opponent more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, he remains stationary until a forward pass is thrown
(c) after losing legal contact with an opponent more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, he is forced behind the line of scrimmage by an opponent, at which time he is again subject to normal blocking restrictions for an ineligible offensive player. Note: If an ineligible offensive player moves beyond the line while legally blocking or being blocked by an opponent, an eligible offensive player may catch a pass between them and the line of scrimmage.
Honestly, I didn’t know about those loopholes. I bet very few players or coaches do. None of them applied to the Steelers’ play. But in the future, a crafty coach could exploit them.
Offensively, the Steelers do what they do. I am sure Steelers fans recognize that their team’s passing concepts haven’t changed much in the past decade or more. I would recommend more creative, unpredictable and opponent-specific play design, but it is hard to argue with the results. Since 2000, they’ve gone to three Super Bowls, winning two, and they’ve won more games than every team except the Patriots, who alter their strategy for every game.
Early in this game, the Patriots were determined not to let the Steelers beat them through the air. They doubled Antonio Brown, which should come as no surprise because they always double-cover Brown. But on a few occasions, the Pats also doubled Martavis Bryant and added a low hole defender, who would help out on either Le’Veon Bell or JuJu Smith-Schuster. The drawback of having eight players in coverage is that there are only three left to rush the passer, giving Roethlisberger and his receivers plenty of time to get open, which they needed, as their play design didn’t always make sense to me.
The Steelers had to know that on third down Brown would have a cornerback covering him at the line of scrimmage and a safety over the top. In that case, I would have suggested isolating Brown on the single-receiver side. That would force the Patriots to show that they are doubling Bryant and would pull two defenders out of the play. Instead, the Steelers put Brown in stacks and bunches, so the safety ended up being over multiple receivers and could help cover them. That led to Roethlisberger struggling to find an open receiver initially and holding the ball until Brown could elude the coverage. That tactic created a 19-yard reception on the Steelers’ second drive. But, on the third drive, Brown was injured as a result of backyard football offense.
Brown never returned to the game, making life a lot easier for the Patriots’ defense. The Patriots continued to play a lot of man coverage but didn’t double as much. Bell catching the ball out of the backfield became the No. 1 priority. The best way to keep Bell from catching the ball is to keep him from running a route. To do that, the New England linebackers aligned at the line of scrimmage before the snap, signaling to the Steelers that a blitz was coming. Then at the snap of the ball, one backer would “hug-rush,” which means that he would run across the line as if he were blitzing, but he was actually responsible for covering Bell. If Bell is responsible for blocking the blitzer, then the backer will let himself be blocked. For the defense, the end result was fantastic. They took Bell out of the play with just one defender. It only worked a couple of times before the Steelers countered by free releasing him. He caught five passes for 48 yards and ran for 117 yards and a touchdown. A good game by any standard, but he didn’t have a huge gainer.
Limiting big plays is challenging against the Steelers, and that was the Patriots’ goal: force the Steelers to throw it short and tackle well. Without Brown in the game, Bryant and Smith-Schuster each had a big play. Bryant caught a 39-yard go route touchdown, and with less than a minute left in the game, Smith-Schuster took a shallow crossing route 69 yards, giving his team a chance to win. There was nothing special about the play design that created big play opportunities. The Steelers have outstanding skill players, so the coaches subscribe to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) design principle — not because the coaches or players are stupid, but because it would be stupid to complicate the game when you have such talented players. But I don’t think talent and KISS will be enough to carry them to a championship. They’ll have to get a little more creative, particularly if they are going to beat the Patriots.