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, Dan Vasko and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Dan on the players.
Today, we’re here to breakdown the New England Patriots’ D.
Alex’s Scheme Breakdown
Patriots Run Defense
The run defense has a weird amount of variance to it but long story short, this is a group you can run on. They’re a lowly 27th in yards per carry allowed (4.9) but, either by game circumstance or just good situational football, they have allowed the second-fewest rushing TDs in 2018. Just seven in all.
They’ve allowed 47 runs of 10+ yards, bottom third in the league, but the safeties are keeping a lid on things. Just nine of 20+, an above average mark.
They don’t have a lot of big uglies up front and a downhill run game can be effective against them. Running on the perimeter can have some success but given the speed of their linebackers and the overall discipline of this defense, I’d rather take it between the tackles (especially if James Conner can’t go) or run power and bounce it off the tackle’s outside hip. They do have ex-Brown Danny Shelton, but he’s seen limited snaps this year, logging about 1/3 of their total and hasn’t played the last two weeks. I suspect might play a little bit more this week though.
Starting up front sits Malcolm Brown and Lawrence Guy. Guy has been an effective run stuffer in Baltimore before coming over to New England. Adam Butler is pretty much the only other true interior player who rotates in, if Shelton doesn’t have a role, but there’s enough versatility in this front, especially in their sub-packages. At its core, it’s a multiple front that can run a 3-4, 4-3, and 3-3-5. And that’s before getting into their sub-packages. One of the most varied defenses in football.
Trey Flowers is arguably their best guy in the front seven, starting at defensive end. Kyle Van Noy can play with his hand up or down and leads the team in tackles. Deatrich Wise Jr. is a bigger body at end (6’5, 275) along with Adrian Clayborn, who as beat writer Ben Volin told us Wednesday, has been a bit of a disappointment.
Miami showed power can be effective against the Patriots. And that’s been the Steelers bread and butter. So I might lean on that. A man blocking scheme, getting downhill, the line being physical. That’s my approach.
To the Patriots credit, they will do things to take away your interior run game. Bear fronts or reducing the front, shown below.
Elandon Roberts and almost-Steeler Dont’a Hightower are the two mainstays in the middle. John Simon has also rotated in for the Pats in their base and three linebacker packages.
Patriots Pass Defense
The pass defense has been solid despite a lack of sacks and presumed pressure. They’re 12th in points per game (22.5), tied 6th in YPA allowed (7.1), and their defense has the 5th most interceptions (14). That YPA is low because of a low completion rate against (62%, 6th in the league) because they are a bit vulnerable to the big play. Below average in completions of 20+ and 40+ yards (tied 20th and 19th, respectively).
This is all happening despite recording just 24 sacks on the year, nearly half of what Pittsburgh has recorded, which ranks tied-29th in the NFL. Flowers leads this group with 6.5, about to set a career high, while Wise Jr. is the only other player with at least three. Their secondary do make up for two sacks though, so they’ll blitz from a variety of places – the tape confirms that.
Other weak spots include their red zone (tied 21st) and third down (24th) defense.
In personnel, Stephon Gilmore and rookie J.C. Jackson are your starting corners with former Brown Jason McCourty working out of the slot and playing well. The very talented Devin McCourty and tenured Patrick Chung make up a strong safety duo. Chung feels like a linebacker on most downs, always lined up into the box. Even in sub-packages, he works down near the line with Duron Harmon playing deep. Obi Melinfonwu is showing up in the Patriots’ amoeba defense, with just one defensive linemen on the field, as the 7th DB.
Schematically, what Bill Belichick does well than anyone else is find a way to take out your best guy. Or limit him the best he can. In Week 13 against Minnesota, a 24-10 victory, Adam Thielen was held to five catches, 28 yards, and a score. Very tame numbers from what he’s been putting up all year.
Often, Belichick will bracket your best guy (Antonio Brown) with his second best corner and safety/linebacker help. He’ll man up your second best guy (Gilmore on JuJu Smith-Schuster) one on one. That creates a positive matchup on both players: double-coverage on one, your best cover guy on the other.
Watch as Thielen, lined up as the #3 receiver here, is bracketed by the safety and linebacker. Linebacker has inside leverage/routes, the safety outside and vertical. It is possible to cover a slot receiver with more than just a linebacker. Crazy, right?
Steelers struggling to come up with an answer when WRs are #3. Belichick shows it's possible, even with a nickel blitz. Disguise coverage, bracket Theilen (BB brackets your best guy). LB has inside leverage, safety outside/vert. Problem solved. pic.twitter.com/xUX5Dvp5Wl
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 13, 2018
Variety of coverages but you get more man to man/single high in 2×2.
It feels like they’re blitzing and running more games/stunts this year, too. Watch for the nickel corner blitz, when aligned to the open/field side, on 1st and 10 against 2×2 sets. Examples from the past two weeks.
I didn’t take the deepest dive into this information but they seem to defend screen plays well. Again, disciplined, athletic, good tacklers. That’s a big part of the Steelers offense and could have some problems this weekend. The good news is the Steelers rarely have just one option on a screen pass so Ben Roethlisberger will have a secondary read if the initial one isn’t there.
Lastly, gotta mention special teams. Little nervous about Jordan Berry and the Steelers’ punt team this weekend. New England has blocked three punts this year. Two of them came in the first half against Miami, the latter technically a deflection, not a block, but the punt traveled just two yards.
Against the Dolphins, the Patriots sent an eight man rush each time and got pressure up the interior. Pittsburgh almost had one blocked last week so you can bet New England will try to get home again.
Dan’s Individual Breakdown
LDE Trey Flowers, RDE Deatrich Wise Jr., Defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Malcolm Brown. Adrian Clayborne rotates in at end.
Despite the Patriots defense being near the bottom of the league in most categories, this is a solid defensive front. They don’t have the sack numbers, but they produce consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Here Keionta Davis (very limited snap count) and Wise combine to pressure Rodgers on the outside. Guy holds a double team, and Wise crashes inside leaving him one-on-one with the guard. Wise always has his legs churning, slowly but effectively applying pressure in the backfield.
The Pats generate pressure in a myriad of ways. They don’t stick to one formula, they’ll throw the kitchen sink at ya and they’ve got a variety of players that fit different schemes. Same game here against the Pack.
This time they use a twist with Clayborn stunting inside and Flowers essentially “picking” the left tackle. They both get through for a combined sack. Flowers is perfect for this play given his lower body strength (more on him in a bit). Clayborn is pretty quick allowing him to make the cut inside before help arrives. Now on to Flowers.
Trey Flowers is a guy that doesn’t pop out on the sheet. He has a relatively small frame for a defensive end (6’2” 266lbs), but he makes up for the lack of size with his high motor and great hand placement. He uses his frame to his advantage, in similar ways James Harrison used to, firing quickly off the snap into the blocker’s chest to gain leverage. Check out how he absolutely blows up the Bills tight end and makes a big play in the backfield.
The tight end didn’t have a chance. And it all starts with that first step. Here’s a zoomed in version of Flowers’ initial push on the play.
He extends right into the tight end’s chest using his lower body to extend into the backfield. A chip from the tackle doesn’t even phase Flowers as he establishes leverage and is able to disengage inside to take down the running back. Big time play from Flowers.
Mike linebacker Elandon Roberts, WILL linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy is the SAM.
The front seven is a disciplined group and, for the most part, and they excel at sealing the edge usually with their linebackers. Kyle Van Noy did a great job of this against the Jets in week 12.
Right off the snap Van Noy engages the tight end and holds the block right at the line of scrimmage while moving with the o-line towards the sidelines. The other back rolls out to contain the DB providing a hole for the Elijah McGuire. But Van Noy is able to give himself just enough separation from the tight end to plug the outside gap while dipping inside, avoiding another block, and meeting McGuire head-up for a loss. Van Noy displays solid awareness, as does the majority of this defensive unit, and discipline to maintain the edge and break through right at the last second.
Hightower is great at beating blocks and can run down backs sideline to sideline usually as a product of his great angles. He’s a good mix of power and speed for the position. Not ultra fast, not incredibly strong, but enough to do a lot of different things well.
Great instincts and aggressiveness could sum up Elandon Roberts. He’s always flying to the ball and if he gets hands on a ball-carrier they’re most likely not getting away. Very sound tackler. Still coming into his own now in his third year, but making great strides within the system. Not the best laterally, but inside he is very disruptive.
The problem for New England with their linebackers is that they don’t really have a guy that’s great in coverage. This is probably a big reason for them using dime/nickel packages often.
Jason McCourty is the LCB, Stephon Gilmore on the right. Patrick Chung is the strong safety, Devon McCourty the free safety. Jonathan Jones along with rookie JC Jackson rotate in nickel packages. They utilize a lot of their depth especially with the secondary. Duron Harmon comes in in dime packages.
A lot of smoke in mirrors, and plenty of distractions when it comes to the secondary. Oftentimes you’ll see both Devon McCourty and Patrick Chung lined up in the box, with someone like Jason McCourty or Harmon moving back into the safety role. These guys are interchangeable any given play making it very difficult to recognize coverages. And assuming different roles is the New England way. The McCourty’s and Chung embrace that thoroughly.
Harmon is a jack of all trades type of guy. He can play a sub linebacker in dime, he can play deep coverage as a safety, or man-up with a tight end. He’s good at reading plays and keeps his eyes on the quarterback.
After a down year in 2017 Gilmore is playing some great football in 2018. He has two interceptions on the season, but adds 14 pass breakups. Has good size at 6’0” 190 lbs and can jam the receiver at the line. Phenomenal athlete. He’s good at baiting receivers and then undercutting the route and is best utilized in man-coverage.
Jonathan Jones is a very good slot corner. Quick hips and has the speed to mirror crossing routes. Should see a healthy dose of him on Sunday.
Overall they have a lot of pieces with which they use in different ways. They’ll definitely test the Steelers discipline as well with their variety of pressures especially from the secondary, which they use sparingly.