When the Patriots travel to Pittsburgh for Sunday's AFC showdown against the Steelers, they'll find a team ranked No. 1 in the league against the pass. The two opponents that emerged with victories against Pittsburgh this season did so while running the ball for a combined 350 yards (Ravens 170; Texans 180). The obvious suggestion is to operate with a run-first attack.
Alas, the Patriots vehemently prefer to pass the ball against the Steelers. An NBC graphic during last year's Sunday night broadcast noted the Patriots had a 73:27 pass-to-run ratio in regular season games against the Steelers during Bill Belichick's coaching era, compared to a 55:45 ratio against all other teams.
That's not to say the Patriots won't at least give the illusion of running the ball. Last year, the Patriots thrived off of play action. According to ESPN Stats and Info, quarterback Tom Brady was 11-of-14 passing for 161 yards with a touchdown when utilizing play action against the Steelers last season (that was Brady's high for both play-action attempts and passes since the 2007 campaign).
With that in mind, let's put a couple of those play-action plays under the microscope:
GRONKOWSKI'S SECOND TOUCHDOWN
The Patriots leaned heavy on their running backs on the opening drive of the second half with BenJarvus Green-Ellis carrying the ball four times and catching two short passes, while Sammy Morris added a short trot as New England spanned 69 yards over nine plays. On second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 9, the Patriots came out in a two-back, two-receiver set that featured tight end Alge Crumpler as the fullback in front of Green-Ellis.
The formation is designed to suggest run and when Brady offered a play-action fake, nickel back William Gay -- probably not an ideal candidate to be on the field regardless of run or pass given a two-receiver formation -- got caught cheating towards the line to defend the run. That allowed Gronkowski to sneak out into the flat. With Welker initially faking run block, then taking a pair of defensive backs to the end zone, Gronkowski could waltz in with the second of three touchdowns on the game.
Gay could only chase, but he was too late to stop Gronkowski from going in for a score.
PLAY ACTION SETS UP A BIG PLAY
Brady passed for 350 yards in this game, but it came over 43 attempts and many of his 30 completions were of the short to mid-range variety and play action set up his biggest toss of the night. The Patriots were already up two touchdowns when Jeff Reed missed a 26-yard chip shot field goal, giving New England the ball at their own 20 with 3:40 to play in the third frame. After a first-down incompletion, the Patriots again hint at run with a two-receiver, two-tight end set.
A couple things to note as Brady executes the play-action fake to Green-Ellis: Look at left guard Logan Mankins selling the run by pulling to the right side of the line, this not only freezes the linebackers, but both safeties, including defensive player of the year Troy Polamalu, who gets caught anticipating the run. This essentially makes it 1-on-1 on the outside with No. 3 receiver Brandon Tate working against cornerback Ike Taylor.
Play action opened up the entire middle of the field and Tate was able to fake Taylor to the outside before finding plenty of room over the middle (inset) to make a 45-yard grab. Polamalu is good enough to not bite on every play-action fake, but when he does get caught cheating, the Patriots must make him pay by throwing to the open spots on the field.