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, we’re breaking down the New England Patriots’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Patriots Run Game
The run game feels like it has a defined runner for the first time in a long time, maybe since the Laurence Maroney days. It’d led by first round pick Sony Michel, averaging a healthy 4.3 yards per carry while leading the team in yards and touchdowns. Of course, there’s still James White, a Steelers’ killer, and we’ll talk about him in the pass game because he does so much of his damage there.
As a team, they are 29th in yards per carry at four yards a pop. They’re better than those numbers indicate. Even with Tom Brady, they like to finish drives with the run game, fourth in the league with 16 rushing scores and third in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns inside the five.
Fullback James Develin has played the second most snaps of anyone at his position – only the hybrid Kyle Juszczyk has more – and he’s recently been used near the goal line with three touchdowns over the last two weeks. For the year, he has a very Jerome Bettis stat line of six carries for eight yards and four scores. He could become the first player in NFL history with four touchdowns in a season on ten or fewer rushes.
Cordarrelle Patterson is also involved in the run game too. He is lined all over the field, taking full advantage of his skillset, but can be used like a traditional back, especially when Michel was hurt earlier in the year. He has more carries (38) than receptions for the first time in his career. They ask him to line up tight and get involved in the run game as a blocker and used off playaction as a safety valve if the deep progression is taken away.
Schematically, they’ll throw a lot at you but are successful with their lead strong. Follow Develin through the hole.
Just like in the past, they wham block and use angles as well as anyone, especially if you’re trying to slant and stunt the way Pittsburgh likes to do. Watch out for it on 1st and 10 early in the game.
The expected starting five up front:
LT – Trent Brown
LG – Joe Thuney
C – David Andrews
RG – Shaq Mason
RT – Marcus Cannon
Couple of big tackles, couple of undersized guards, but a good group overall. Brown is an underrated tackle and great pickup this offseason from San Fran. Bud Dupree is up for a much bigger challenge than what he’s faced, seeing rookie tackle after rookie tackle this year. That gravy train ends the next two weeks with Brown and then Terron Armstead (if he plays) Week 16 vs the Saints.
Couple other stats. They’re 6th in the NFL in points per game, top ten on third down at 42.3%, though their red zone offense is just middle-of-the-road, 14th this year.
Patriots Pass Game
Obviously, this is Brady’s team. Another fantastic season, even if it isn’t a league-leading one. Completing nearly 2/3 of his throws, thrown 23 touchdowns, keeps doing his thing at age 41. His favorite weapon has been James White, leading the team with 76 receptions, in part because he’s been healthy and not suspended unlike Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Those 76 catches rank third among all running backs in the league. He’s got at least five receptions in eight of his last ten games.
Gronkowski is having a “down” year the way Antonio Brown is having a “down” year. It’s still really good. In just ten games this year, he has 43 receptions for 637 yards and three touchdowns, coming off a 8/107/1 game against Miami. Edelman is another of Brady’s top targets. Despite missing the first month of the year, he’s tied 6th with 12 red zone targets. So watch out for #11 inside the 20.
New England ranks tied for the 9th most passes of 20+ yards but 14th in 40+. Still, you know how easily Brady has gotten vertical against the Steelers so that numbers could change after this weekend.
I’m expecting the Patriots to come out in empty and routinely challenge the Steelers to defend it. They haven’t shown any ability to do so this year and New England has had success with it in the past in addition to doing the one thing you can’t handle. They can also do this out of 21 personnel with two running backs in the game, trying to goad you into your base defense so they get backs lined up on linebackers. I know I said in the past I’d like to “streamline” the defense, match their personnel with theirs, but if you get two runners on the field, the Steelers need to be in nickel. Or at the least, not use Jon Bostic in their base 3-4, as they have recently.
When they do align a back in the backfield, they love to false key and pull one of their guards, getting the linebackers suckered in while they throw it behind them.
Divide routes with a post/wheel combo and a spot concept (curl/flat/corner) are two of the most popular routes they’ll run. One of each shown below.
Even if you defend all that, they’ll run a bunch of option routes with their receivers and tight ends, bending the route based on your coverage/leverage. If you’re lined inside, they’ll break to the sidelines.
If you want to try and blitz, they’ll employ a “sniffer,” a running back near the LOS to stop any interior blitz. If you drop, the back will release out into the pattern.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Patriots week, Steelers fans! The Death Star is now right above Steelers Nation.
New England is coming off of a stunning 34-33 loss to the Miami Dolphins on a last-second 69-yard touchdown off of two laterals by Kenyan Drake. Now, the Patriots ride into town for a pivotal game at Heinz Field for both teams. Pittsburgh needs to win to keep its playoff hopes alive, while the Patriots can move closer to clinching a first-round bye in the AFC.
Coming into the Week 15 showdown at Heinz Field, the Patriots have the No. 5 overall total offense in the NFL, right behind the Steelers. New England averages 397.1 yards per game, 5.9 yards per play, score 28 points per game (6th in NFL), convert third downs at a 42 percent clip, and hold a turnover margin of +6.
Unlike recent years under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots are much more balanced this season, thanks to a renewed focus on the run game with rookie Sony Michel. New England does sit 16th in the NFL, but they’re averaging 118.2 rushing yards per game.
In recent years, Brady was asked to do a ton for the Patriots through the air, especially in the short passing game, which was an extension of the Patriots’ run game. This year is totally different as the Patriots are running the ball nearly 30 times a game on average, providing balance to the New England attack.
That balance has helped Brady and the Patriots utilize play-action much more this season, which has led to some big pickups down the field in the passing game.
Make no mistake: Brady is still playing at a terrific level, but he’s been able to utilize the play-action pass to slow down the pass rush and blitzes, giving him a bit more time in the pocket.
Along with that additional time comes time for routes to develop down the field. Credit to Brady this season too: he’s much more willing to push the ball down the field to playmakers like Cordarelle Patterson and Josh Gordon. Credit to New England also for going out and getting him more weapons at an affordable price.
Here against Miami last week, Brady utilizes the play-action fake, allowing Patterson to get up the seam between the corner and safety for the Dolphins. Brady, leading Patterson perfectly for the touchdown, throws this on a rope. That 12 still has it.
The key to this route by Patterson is his ability to close ground quickly on the cornerback, stepping on the defenders toes at the top of his route, giving him breathing room inside on the post for the score.
One thing that Brady has thrived on this season are boundary routes where he has to throw the ball to the sideline 15-20 yards down the field with some zip to it. His arm really hasn’t slowed down that much even at 40 years old.
From what I’ve seen on tape, Brady and Julian Edelman are connecting at quite a clip on out routes and corner routes to the sideline.
Watch the last few Patriots games and you’ll see pitch and catches from Brady to Edelman looking a lot like this. Yes, Edelman gets off with a slight pushoff at the top of this route, but Brady is on such a strong wavelength with Edelman that he throws Edelman open a lot on these routes, often letting go of the ball before the veteran wide receiver is out of his break.
While the Patriots seem to push the ball down the field a bit more this season, they’ll still nickel and dime you down the field, largely behind their ability to scheme guys open with rubs and formations.
Look how wide open Chris Hogan is on this catch-and-run against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13.
Hogan lines up inside tight to the line of scrimmage in trips left. Once the ball is snapped, watch Edelman delay off the line just a bit, getting into the Vikings corner, giving Hogan a lane behind him, causing the Vikings’ safety in coverage against Hogan to get caught up. Look at all that green grass in front of Hogan after the catch.
This is what the Patriots do. They’ve been doing it for years, and it works all the time. Don’t expect anything to change on Sunday, especially against the Steelers’ zone defense.
With guys like Edelman, Hogan, Patterson, and Gordon at receiver, plus Rob Gronkowski at tight end, I can make the argument Brady has never had this many weapons at his disposal in all his time in New England. Sure, the year of Randy Moss and Wes Welker was insane, but the Patriots weren’t this deep.
Speaking of Gronkowski, prior to last week he hadn’t looked himself due to injuries and missing time to get healthy. But the Patriots unleashed him in Miami, getting him a ton of work off of play action with crossing routes against linebackers. Expect to see a ton of that on Sunday evening in Pittsburgh.
At running back, Michel is having a great rookie year, but the underrated back is James White. He’s the clear-cut receiving back, but he’s had some success as a runner lately, hitting holes with authority while running downhill with punishment.
He’s a small back, but he’s not afraid to mix it up between the tackles. That being said, the Patriots will try and get him on the boundary with the ball in his hands.
This is a zone stretch run left against the Vikings in Week 13. Aside from White’s ability to stretch the run out as much as possible left before putting his foot in the ground and getting upfield, watch left tackle Trent Brown here. He takes out two Vikings, paving the way for a nice run from White.
Michel is the workhorse that can do it all, but the Patriots do a great job of keeping him fresh by working in James White, and now Rex Burkhead, who returned from IR a couple of weeks ago. Now New England has three capable running backs that can run between the tackles and catch the football out of the backfield.
Up front, I really like this Patriots offensive line. They’re underrated in today’s game. Here’s how they’re expected to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Trent Brown
LG — Joe Thuney
C — David Andrews
RG — Shaq Mason
RT — Marcus Cannon
New England would be wise to lock up Brown before free agency in the spring. He’s playing at a high level at left tackle, both as a run blocker and a pass blocker. Brown made the move from right to left tackle after rookie Isaiah Wynn tore his Achilles in the preseason, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
Thuney and Mason are one of the more underrated duos at guard. Both are maulers in the run game and move well in space when asked to. Mason struggles at time in pass protection, but if he gets his hands on you it’s over.
Andrews is one of the smartest centers in football. He’s almost an extension of Brady at this point. The veteran center can diagnose what the defense is doing quickly, allowing him to set up protections while Brady can focus on adjustments with his weapons.
Cannon really struggles with speed off of the edge, which leads the Patriots to send help his way with tight end and running back chips, but Cannon hasn’t been the big weakness this season that he’s been in the past for the Patriots.
On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski is the big name, but he’s struggled with consistency in recent years. The veteran kicker is 24-for-29 on the season, but he’s bad outside of 50 yards, hitting just 2 of 5 kicks this season from that distance. He also missed a big extra point and a kick in the Week 14 loss to the Dolphins that ultimately did in the Patriots.
Punter Ryan Allen is having one heck of a season. The sixth-year punter is averaging nearly 46 yards per punt with a long of 66 yards and 13 punts downed inside the 20-yard line for New England. He can flip the field in a hurry.
Edelman serves as the punt returner. He came close the last couple of weeks of busting a big one. He’s back there for his experience and consistency. Patterson returns the kicks. He’s taken one to the house this season from 95 yards out, and is averaging 30.5 yards per return on the season. Here’s hoping Chris Boswell puts it through the back of the end zone every time.
One thing to keep an eye on is New England’s punt block ability. The Patriots blocked two first-half punts last week, thanks to Albert McClellan, Ramon Humber and Nate Ebner attacking Miami’s long snapper. With Kam Canaday banged up, expect the Patriots to force him into some tough blocking situations on Sunday.