By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Saturday night was a bit of a wake-up call for the Patriots offense, as the team struggled to move the ball consistently against the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Playoff. Yes, they scored 27 points on offense, but one of their touchdowns came on a drive that started at the Texans' 6-yard line. They also had two drives of 10-plus plays that resulted in field goals.
Can the Pittsburgh Steelers present similar problems for the Patriots offense in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium?
The Texans defense didn't exactly reinvent the wheel on Saturday, but they did prove that there is still a formula to slowing down Brady and the Patriots offense if you can scheme it properly - and have the personnel to pull it off. If you can get pressure on Brady up the middle with just three or four rushers and flood the short-to-intermediate areas of the field with as many as eight players in coverage, you get what you got on Saturday.
The Texans consistently pressured Brady and threw him off his spot in the pocket with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, and they also held tight man-to-man coverage in the areas of the field where Brady typically picks teams apart. That's why Brady had to roll out of the pocket and heave so many deep throws down the field, which Bill Belichick described as "prayers."
Brady's deep ball accuracy has improved this season and Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan are pretty good receivers, so the Patriots were able to make some big plays with that strategy on offense. But it's hardly a sustainable game plan and they would surely rather correct the problems they had - most importantly, the pressure up the middle.
Saturday night was the first time that rookie guard Joe Thuney looked like a rookie throughout the game. He had previously flashed some issues with penalties and inconsistency, but against the Texans he was targeted and abused repeatedly. He didn't do nearly enough to chip Clowney on this play when he burst through the middle of the line on this play:
Center David Andrews also had plenty of problems protecting Brady against Clowney and Mercilus, exemplified by this absurd spin move Mercilus pulled on him when he sacked Brady in the second quarter.
The Texans didn't just do an exceptional job getting pressure up the middle; they also got great coverage on the outside from cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and A.J. Bouye. The latter, who finished the regular season as Pro Football Focus' third-best corner with an elite 90.9 grade, intercepted Brady in the first quarter and could have had a second on the Patriots' first play of the third quarter.
Do the Steelers have enough personnel to pull the same tricks as the Texans? Up front, they have the likes of James Harrison, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt to generate pressure, and could also mix in linebacker Ryan Shazier. They are good, but not necessarily great, pass rushers, certainly not on the level of Clowney or Mercilus.
In the defensive backfield, the Steelers have veteran corner William Gay to go along with rookie Artie Burns and third-year pro Ross Cockrell. This group is decidedly not on the same level as a duo like Bouye and Joseph, so there's a chance that Brady will have more windows to make the short-to-intermediate throws that he excels at - as opposed to lobbing up rainbow after rainbow like he did on Saturday.
Greg Bedard said on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Felger & Mazz on Tuesday that it is a "resounding no" that the Steelers have the personnel to do what the Texans did to Brady and the Patriots offense on Saturday. They probably do not, on paper. But as Houston showed, the blueprint for success against Brady is still there and can be effective if done well.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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