By Tony Massarotti, Globe columnist
The legend of Tim Tebow grows, only fueled by the happenings on Sunday in the Mile High City. But in his private moments this week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is likely scoffing at what the Pittsburgh Steelers did to themselves, too. It seems impossible to think Belichick will make the same mistake.
The NFL being the NFL, there is still the chance the Broncos will stun the Patriots and the football world on Saturday night by upsetting the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. But it is not likely. If the Broncos do somehow manage to pull off the seemingly impossible - the Patriots are overwhelming favorites - they will likely have to do it in far different fashion than the manner in which they beat the Steelers, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Belichick, after all, is not likely to leave a makeshift New England secondary in 1-on-1 coverage the way the Steelers did, even if he refuses to say so.
"You know, each team plays their own defensive scheme against them, whether it’s Buffalo or Kansas City or Pittsburgh or whoever it is," Belichick told reporters yesterday when asked if Pittsburgh's defensive approach against the Broncos was at all revealing. "We have our scheme. We’ll take some things from each game that we’ve seen and try to apply it to what we do. We’re not them, they’re not us, we have different players - same thing with Kansas City, Buffalo and all that. There’s certainly a lot to be learned but at the same time, we have our own matchups and we’re different from everybody else." Translation: We're not going to play it the way the Steelers did, but we wouldn't have done that anyway ... Oh, and the Steelers were dumb.
The Steelers were downright astonishingly and historically stupid.
Professional football is obviously a detailed, complex game, but even in the most simplistic terms, what the Steelers did against the Broncos Sunday made no sense and reeked of arrogance. Against an inaccurate and inconsistent quarterback who sometimes looks as if he's playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, the Steelers left themselves vulnerable to the big play. Rather than make Tebow surgically maneuver his way down the field - something he has not proven he can do - the Steelers allowed Tebow to play a risk-reward game that Tebow exploited to the max.
Think about it: Tebow completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes - 47.6 percent, to be precise - but still threw for 316 yards while averaging 31.6 yards per completion. In basketball parlance, the Steelers packed the paint against someone whose only chance was to hit 3-pointers, which Tebow did.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
As we all know, statistics can be deceiving and are easily manipulated in any argument, but they're worth discussing here. For example, on all throws that traveled more than 40 yards in the air this season, the overall completion percentage in the NFL was 23.3 percent. On 257 attempts - an average of just eight per team, or one every two games - quarterbacks threw 23 touchdowns and 25 interceptions for an overall rating of 69.4. The bottom line is that the deep ball is generally an absurdly low-percentage and inefficient throw, even for someone like Tom Brady, who was 1 for 8 on such attempts.
The only team that was better than 50 percent on long throws during the regular season? The Cleveland Browns, who went 1 for 1.
Before Sunday, during his time as a starter, Tebow was 0 for 5 on throws of more than 40 yards. Most everybody(end) has a poor percentage on the long throws, which is why they are rarely attempted. Nonetheless, Tebow went 1 for 1 on such attempts Sunday, completing a 51-yard strike to Demaryius Thomas early in the second quarter (with the Steelers holding a 6-0 edge) because the Steelers left Ike Taylor isolated against Thomas on the left sideline.
Even then, Denver still had the ball on only the Pittsburgh 31-yard line. The Steelers could have stiffened and held the Broncos to a field goal. Instead, the Steelers went right back to the same defense, allowing a 30-yard strike from Tebow to Eddie Royal (in man coverage) two plays later, giving Denver a 7-6 lead.
After that, the Steelers kept making the same mistake over and over again, particularly on the intermediate routes where only the great quarterbacks make their money. In the process, they turned Tebow from a mediocre quarterback (at best) to a world-beater.
For what it's worth, here are Tebow's passer ratings on throws of different lengths both for his time as a starter and Sunday's win over the Steelers:
Season Sunday 1-10 yards 68.7 28.6 11-20 yards 74.5 129.5 21-30 yards 84.1 156.3 31-40 yards 78.9 39.6
Staggering, right? On throws from 11-30 yards against the Steelers on Sunday, Tebow performed (at least statistically) like Peyton Manning. So was that because Tebow learned to read defenses and developed uncanny accuracy between Week 17 and the playoffs? Or was it because the Steelers played illogically aggressive defense that left their corners on an island (especially Taylor) and allowed Denver receivers to run wild after the catch?
Go back and look at Tebow's 80-yard, game-winning throw to Thomas in overtime. The line of scrimmage is the Denver 20-yard line. Thomas catches the ball at about the 38- or 39-yard line. By leaving Taylor in 1-on-1 coverage - with no help in the middle of the field - all Tebow had to do was complete an 18- or 19-yard pass (against man coverage) to get an 80-yard touchdown. Had the Steelers just played zone, they likely would have given up an incompletion - or maybe a 5-yard run.
During the regular season, after all, Tebow's overall completion percentage of 46.5 ranked 34th among 34 qualifying NFL quarterbacks. Nice move, Mike Tomlin. You too, Dick LeBeau. Instead of letting Tebow fire the ball into the ground (or at your defenders) by playing a more crowded zone - particularly in an age when man-to-man defense is becoming virtually impossible - you opted to reward him with big gains for easier throws.
Say this for Belichick: seemingly settled on playing a more aggressive, attacking defense this season that was intent on getting after the quarterback and relying on the coverage skills of Devin McCourty, he scrapped the plan early. Belichick decided right then and there that his defensive backs couldn't cover. The Patriots may not win a championship this year because their defense remains suspect against above-average quarterback play, but they also weren't going to win 13 games during the regular season with McCourty repeatedly getting beaten over the top.
So Belichick went to Plan B, in which he asked the Patriots to sit back against a succession of second-rate quarterbacks from Tyler Palko, Vince Young and Dan Orlovsky to Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and, yes, Tebow.
Which is why Belichick will do the same thing Saturday night, sacrificing the run and challenging Tebow to keep up with Brady by staying on the ground.
Even with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, that is something the Steelers should have been able to figure out.