Playbook Mailbag: A template to beat the Patriots?

Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots, most non-terrible-towel-carrying Americans were wondering how the Steelers could match up with Tom Terrific’s crew.

After a 25-17 win over New England, America saw how it could be done.

And wouldn’tcha know it, we got a Twitter question in our mailbag this week wanting to know if the Steelers taught the rest of the league a lesson.

How did the Steelers shut down Tom Brady and did they just give the #nfl the template to beat the Patriots? — @TimABRussell

While it might not be a template the rest of the league can match, our tape study did show a few similarities between the Steelers’ defensive scheme and that of the other two teams who held Brady to less than 300 yards passing this season.

Pittsburgh, like Oakland and Dallas, played almost entirely man defense with their secondary — either Cover 1, with Troy Polamalu as a robber, or a two-high shell with man-to-man coverage underneath. Polamalu did a great job reading Brady’s eyes, taking away throwing lanes and knocking the Patriots receivers and TE Rob Gronkowski off their routes.

An ability to press and play man coverage versus the Patriots receivers seems to be key. In the three games in which Brady has failed to throw for 300 yards, he has completed just 53.5 percent of his throws against man coverage as opposed to 79.5 percent versus zone.

The Patriots receivers, especially Wes Welker, are better releasing off of the ball freely rather than creating separation versus bump and run. They are better at finding spaces in zones. By pressing and re-routing them off of their routes, defenses disrupt the timing of the offense and force Brady to hold the ball.  This is something the New England offense is not built to do.

The Steelers were able to generate pressure on Brady without blitzing, taking away his throwing lanes and making the coverage windows tighter. In games Brady doesn’t reach 300 yards, he completes 58 percent of passes (6.32 yards per attempt) against a four-man rush as opposed to 69 percent (9.42 yard per attempt) against the blitz.

Not every defense has weapons like Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley off the edge, but that kind of combo negates the Patriots’ strengths. Pittsburgh may not have created the template, but they clearly saw in their film study an effective strategy already in place and executed it to perfection.

“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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