Over the last three games, the Patriot offense has moved away from being almost exclusively a passing attack led by Tom Brady to a more balanced offense that can effectively use the running game, powered by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The running game has served dual purposes: Take pressure off of Tom Brady, and give the defense time to rest. This Sunday, the Patriots face the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has boasted a strong, hard-nosed defense since the Steel Curtain days.
Don’t expect the Patriots to bring the balanced offense to Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Patriots’ success against the Steelers (6-2 over last decade, including playoffs) is due largely to a lack of offensive balance. Let’s take a look at how the Pats attack the Steeler defense with Tom Brady on the field.
I went back and looked at the number of running plays and passing plays in each game Tom Brady has played in against the Pittsburgh Steelers, so the 2008 game when Matt Cassel was in for an injured Brady was not considered. I removed QB scrambles/sneaks as they are not usually plays called in the huddle. When Brady QB sneaks, it’s usually his call at the line of scrimmage based on the defense. When Tom Brady is playing quarterback, the Patriots are 6-1, including the playoffs, against the Steelers.
When Brady is quarterback, the Patriots have run a total 136 running plays and 276 passing plays in seven games against the Steelers. On a per game basis, the Patriots average 19.4 running plays and 39.4 passing plays against the Steelers. The one game where the Pats ran more than they threw came in the AFC Championship game prior to their last Super Bowl victory. In that game, the Pats led 24-3 at halftime and used Corey Dillon to put the game away, but the majority of the first half featured the passing game. Tom Brady also had the flu during that game, so that likely played into the decision to run Dillon after the Pats had a lead.
In terms of the passing game, the Pats like to attack the middle of the field and work mismatches against the linebackers. Last season, Brady utilized Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker to work the middle of the field. Gronk caught 5 passes for 72 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Welker was targeted 12 times and caught 8 passes for 89 yards. Aaron Hernandez did not play in last year’s game due to injury, so expect him to figure prominently in the game plan, working the middle of the field and lining up in multiple positions.
While it’s clear that the team and the fans have welcomed a return to a balanced attack, you can’t argue with the success the team has had against the Steelers airing it out. Expect a return to “Air Brady” for at least this week.