Tale of the Tape: Blitz Blitz-burgh?

Tom Brady sliced up the Pittsburgh Steelers' blitzes last year in a 39-26 win. With James Harrison out, can the Steelers contain the Patriots' potent passing game?

Sitting in their meeting rooms this week, the Steelers need not speculate about what they may face this week in the Patriots. There’s no need for simulation. Instead there will only be regurgitation, watching over and over the tape of last year’s 39-26 loss.

In Week 10 of last season, Pittsburgh’s defense gave up more points than they have ever allowed in the 11-year history of Heinz Field. Once again, the Patriots will visit with Tom Brady, Wes Welker, two dangerous tight ends and a bevy of running backs in tow.

The Steelers don’t bring any fresh faces to the party, either. And that means they certainly don’t forget the embarrassment the Patriots laid on them less than a year ago.

Everyone in these two locker rooms knows the deal. In the Steelers and Patriots, you have two teams that have appeared in seven of the last 10 Super Bowls and have won a combined five Lombardi Trophies in that span. But neither team was victorious in its last appearance (Patriots lost to the Giants in ’08; Steelers to the Packers in ’10).

In this battle for AFC supremacy, let’s look back at last year as a means to figuring out what might happen Sunday.

Most importantly, you must look to the  ’10 game for how these two teams blitzed.

The Patriots’ defense blitzed the Steelers 23 times in Week 10 (New England averaged 10 blitzes per game in its other 15 regular season contests). While Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is known for finding ways to pressure a quarterback — he blitzed Brady 18 times last year – Bill Belichick’s defense dialed up the blitz more than usual to attack Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

The blitz didn’t work equally for both teams, though. Brady thrived with fewer defenders back in coverage, completing 13 of 18 passes for 154 and a TD versus the blitz. Most importantly, he wasn’t sacked; the only game the Steelers didn’t record a sack last season. The Patriots, on the other hand, sacked Big Ben five times.

When, and how much, these defenses blitz will set the tempo of this matchup.

Creating pressure, and protecting their own quarterback against the pass rush, is something the Steelers must improve. At the same time, they will have to get after Brady without LB James Harrison.

Without Harrison, Pittsburgh has started to move their lone-surviving pass rusher, LaMarr Woodley, around the line of scrimmage. He still plays predominantly on the quarterback’s front side, but will move inside the tackle and rush a guard. He might rush off a quarterback’s blind side, as well, but he usually draws enough attention from blockers in those instances to create a one-on-one rush for a teammate.

LaMarr Woodley will be an important part of Dick LeBeau's blitz packages Sunday versus the Patriots.

The Steelers have blitzed more in recent games, and in more ways than a simple “Fire-X,” perhaps to compensate for a lack of Harrison. They have crowded the line and brought rushers from different launch points, too.

Since Harrison’s Week 4 injury, Pittsburgh’s blitz percentage on passing downs has only escalated, from 31 percent against the Titans to 53 percent this last week vs. the Cardinals. New England’s offensive coaching staff surely has observed the trend, and they will have to design protections to keep Brady upright.

But how the Patriots handle the blitz, and what weapons they take away from Brady in order to protect him, will be interesting. Rob Gronkowski is a big tight end who can pass protect, but he’s a great red-zone target. The Patriots also like to use a running back, like Danny Woodhead, in the passing game.

Assuming the Patriots are able to protect Brady, how the Steelers defend Welker will be an interesting counter-move. Welker is someone the Pats like to use in tandem with outside receivers, using him in combination routes to create rubs and give him space to operate.

New England has struggled with teams who have been able to bracket their inside receivers. Cleveland had success last year bracketing Welker, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who came to the Cowboys this year, had similar success in a close loss the Patriots in Week 6.

Brady will key Troy Polamalu, who directs a very good Pittsburgh pass defense. The Steelers’ wild-man has to cover someone on the inside, in space, whether that is Welker, Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. While Pittsburgh is mostly a two-high defense, the Patriots will spread them out and isolate Polamalu.

Defensively, the Patriots have only blitzed opposing quarterbacks 52 times this year (compare that to a blitz-happy team like the Saints, who have blitzed 141 times this year). If you see a dramatic jump in their blitz numbers again, it’s an indication that Belichick thinks he can take advantage of the Steelers’ porous offensive line again by bringing extra rushers; 16 of the Patriots’ 23 blitzes last year included defensive backs.

Then again, Roethlisberger has been getting the ball out of his hands quicker this year. In the Steelers’ five wins, 57 percent of his attempts have been on passes of less than seven yards. Conversely, in their losses, 34 percent of Roethlisberger’s passes are on short passes. Blitzes and voided areas almost hand completions to Big Ben on a plate.

At the end of the day, who do we think will pick up the blitz? Though Pittsburgh has blocked better this year ever since Max Starks became the starter at left tackle again, they are 27th in the league with 20 sacks allowed (10 were allowed against the blitz). And depending on the health of Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, Woodley might be going up against a rookie in Patriots tackle Nate Solder, a notorious holder.

This is a tough call, because LeBeau isn’t the type of guy to be beaten down two years in a row — but Belichick and the Patriots have had two weeks to prepare.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe … like the chaos of a blitz, we’re torn on how this one will shake out  …  that’s why we love this matchup … but we’re taking the Patriots.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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