As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, revisiting the New England Patriots’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Patriots’ Run Offense
Make no mistake. Last week against Miami is unlikely to repeat itself Sunday afternoon vs Pittsburgh. The Patriots’ offense will function much better. While they’re a team that has no qualms about throwing it 50 times and running only ten, they can still run it effectively.
Mike Gillislee is second in carries but was been removed from the offense. It’s led by Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. Lewis is the much more efficient player but he also isn’t being used in the red zone as often, letting his YPC look healthier (5.2 vs 4.2). James White is still used pretty much exclusively as a receiver, only 43 carries the entire year and no more than five in a game since Week One.
Their scheme offers a good mix. One thing they do uniquely, and effectively, are wham blocks. A wham block is when an off ball player, either a tight end or fullback, angle/down blocks an interior defensive linemen, usually the nose tackle. I think it’s part of the Patriots “script” because when you wham that DL early, you get him thinking about it for the rest of the game.
Each of the last two weeks, they ran a wham block on the 7th play from scrimmage. One example of it.
Beyond that, they’ll run inside and outside zone, both out of one back and two back sets. #46 James Develin is their FB and a good one. You get power runs with the BS guard pulling and pin/pull schemes with the frontside guard pulling.
It isn’t the most talented bunch, and the right side of the line is a weakness but they’re well-coached and varied in how they attack in the run game. Lets them exploit your weakness because they can win any way possible.
Patriots Pass Game
Tom Brady. Still going strong. One thing I want to say about him before giving the overview on his stats. Of course you need to sack him. That’s pretty obvious and true of any QB. One thing about Brady is that he gives himself up more than any other QB in the NFL. His sack numbers are high but I bet half of those are just him flopping down. Which is fine, that’s how you’re not a pile of goo at 41 years old. But for Pittsburgh, you just have to get near the guy and you have the sack.
Now, the downside is Brady has the best pocket mobility in the NFL. But if he feels like he can’t get out of it, if you have a clear shot at him, you’re guaranteed a sack.
Anyway, to the stats. Terrific, as always. Completing over 67% of his passes, 27 TD, 6 INTs. Eight yards per attempt. Rob Gronkowski is the #1 weapon and rightfully so. 55 receptions lead the team and he’s averaging over 15 yards per catch. Brandin Cooks is the deep threat, more than 17 yards a grab, and White has 54 receptions.
Brady is spreading the wealth. Eight players have at least one TD, six have at least two, and five at least three. They have 54 completions of 20+ yards, that’s 2nd in the league, and nine of 40+. That’s tied for 7th.
On third down, it’s James White who leads the charge. 19 receptions, most on the team and a top 15 figure in the entire league. Gronk is right behind him with 18. Brady has looked for Cooks a lot but success has been fleeting. Only five receptions on 22 targets.
Their third down success is high, 41.9%. Top ten in the NFL. Red zone offense is good, not great, at 57.1% (13th overall). Turnover ratio is a +7, tied for 6th.
Two concepts. Expect to see a lot of empty set. Spread the field out, force Vince Williams, Sean Spence, and Arthur Moats to cover a lot of ground, and get their weapons in space. Here, the back gets motioned out, the defense doesn’t respond, and it’s an easy throw.
They’ll also use a “pin” route. Post/dig. Seam route carries the safeties and linebacker, the dig runs underneath.
Josh’s Individual Report
The buildup to the biggest game of the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers is almost over. A Week 15 showdown against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon for the AFC No. 1 seed is up for grabs.
This is what the fans have been waiting for since the end of last season, so buckle up.
With the Patriots, it’s the same song and dance it’s always been since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady started to run through the NFL season after season. New England has a ball control offense that is mostly conservative and consistent, yet still has big-play ability all over the place.
Brady continues to be masterful at the ripe old age of 40 years old. He still has the same touch and anticipation as he did 10 years ago, but his arm strength has slightly declined.
He’s still a great mover in the pocket and knows how to take advantage of certain matchups created through the offensive scheme of Josh McDaniels.
Look at the masterful pocket movement by Brady. He never drops his eyes, works through traffic in front of him and releases the ball quickly to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski working across the middle of the field.
When Brady operates like this, the Patriots become a really tough offense to slow down.
However, the Pats’ offense has struggled in the last two weeks, putting up just 43 total points. It’s been a battle to move the ball the last two weeks against two struggling defenses.
In fact, Brady didn’t complete a single pass to a Patriot wide receiver in the first half on Monday night in Miami against the Dolphins. Against the Dolphins, New England tried to isolate their trio of running backs against Miami’s linebackers in space, but the Dolphins did a great job of tackling in space.
That’s not to say the Patriots’ running back trio of Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White were bad in the game; it’s more of a credit to Miami’s performance.
With a strong trio of running backs, the Pats can rotate in a new one on each play to take advantage of clear mismatches, whether that’s on the ground or in the pass game, where all three are accomplished receivers.
Lewis is clearly the best dual-threat of the three, as the University of Pittsburgh product was leading the NFL in rushing the last three weeks coming into Monday night’s game in Miami.
He’s an elusive back that can get lost behind the mammoth offensive linemen, but don’t overlook his size for a lack of power because he’ll run through defenders for extra yardage.
Lewis takes advantage of some great blocking early in the play to get into the second level of the Buffalo defense, but from there the New England back runs through a couple of tackles before finishing the run with style. In fact, this was Lewis’ longest rush of his career, as well as the Patriots’ longest run of the season.
With Lewis taking over in the run game between the 20’s and Burkhead serving as the goal line back, the Patriots are able to provide more balance to their offensive attack.
Where the running back trio really leaves its mark is in the passing game. Brady loves to target Burkhead and White in the passing game against linebackers, allowing the two backs to try and win their respective matchups in space. More often than not it works, but that hasn’t been the case the last two weeks.
Lewis hasn’t gotten much run in the passing game as of late, but when he does he has a flare for the dramatic.
Check out the one-handed catch by Lewis down the right sideline on a desperation throw by Brady to avoid the blitz. Not many running backs can make the grab.
Lewis isn’t anywhere close to Le’Veon Bell or other guys like Kareem Hunt, LeSean McCoy or Duke Johnson in terms of dual threat ability, but he’s vastly underrated in this league. He’s a major problem to deal with.
Aside from the stacked running backs room in New England, the receiving corps has been quiet as of late. I personally feel that at this point in the season, this is where the Patriots are desperately missing Julian Edelman.
As of late, the Patriots receivers are struggling to win one-on-one. Yes, Chris Hogan just came back from injury last week in Miami, but he rarely won on the outside, making it tough for Brady to find him on the boundary.
Brandin Cooks is the one receiver who can beat man coverage on the Patriots, but teams are starting to scheme to take him away, as evidenced by the Dolphins’ use of Xavien Howard on him.
Cooks is a game-breaker in terms of deep shots and working in the middle of the field, but by being able to place a corner and some safety help on him, Cooks has struggled to make a major impact in the last two weeks.
Danny Amendola has been the one Patriots receiver that has been productive all over the field, working open against zones while also being able to create separation across the middle against man coverage. He’s a tough guy to tackle in space as well, and runs very hard after the catch.
Kenny Britt was brought in this week to provide additional depth and physicality to the receiving corps in New England, but don’t expect him to provide much this week against the Steelers.
The Patriots really, really missed Gronkowski last week against the Dolphins in both the run and pass game. He gives the Patriots another weapon to move around in the passing game, but he might be one of the top blocking tight ends in the game, serving as an extra offensive lineman of sorts in the run game.
With Gronkowski back, expect the Patriots to be able to run the ball much better this week. Dwayne Allen has been mostly a disappointment this season for the Patriots, both in the pass and run game. He struggles to work open, doesn’t create much separation and rarely gets a good push as a blocker.
Offensively, the Patriots’ offensive line has fallen off a cliff in the last few weeks, exposing Brady to a number of big shots in the pocket.
Left to right, the Pats should line up like this up front: Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and LaAdrian Waddle.
Waddle replaces Cameron Fleming, who was a sieve on the right side in the last two weeks, giving up a ton of pressures while missing numerous blocks in the run game.
Andrews really struggles against strong, stout defensive tackles that look to be active against the run and pass. That should be a good matchup for Javon Hargrave to exploit this week.
Solder has declined as a pass blocker in the last few years, struggling with speed and power rushers. TJ Watt should be licking his chops this week, while Mason and Thuney are solid run blockers, but both rarely succeed as pass blockers one-on-one.
Look for Keith Butler to try and match up Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt repeatedly in passing downs against the Patriots’ interior offensive line.
On special teams, New England continues to be solid. They have to have had the best kicking situation in football since the start of the century. Going from Adam Vinatieri to Stephen Gostkowski is laughably good.
Gostkowsi has missed just three field goals on the year. He can kick in any condition with tremendous success. Heinz Field shouldn’t be much of a problem this week.
Punter Ryan Allen has been quietly good over the years. His average yards per punt (43.3) this season isn’t great, but he is a solid directional punter and can pin teams deep consistently, setting up the Pats’ defense with clear field advantage throughout games.
In the return game, Lewis is an elite returner, but in the last few weeks he hasn’t had much of an opportunity due to the number of kicks out of the end zone by opposing kickers. He has a 103-yard return for a score this season, so it would be wise for the Steelers to kick away from him as much as possible on Sunday afternoon.
Amendola serves as the primary punt returner for the Pats, averaging 8.9 yards per return on the year. Bernard Reedy was getting a look as a punt returner for the Patriots in the last two weeks, but the addition of Britt this week caused Reedy to be a roster casualty for New England.