For the outlook this week, I will focus on information from week one of the 2022 season considering the 0-1 New England Patriots have not matched up with the 1-0 Pittsburgh Steelers since 2019, and pose some questions for you, the readers.
Let’s get started with quarterback, using great measures for the position with Expected Points Added (EPA/play = expected points after a play – expected points before the play) and Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE = probability for a complete pass compared to similar situations) for week one:
Here we can see how each of the 33 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts fared to start the 2022 NFL season, with some expected names at the top right. The colored boxes are the players in our sites for week two, with the Patriots announcing on Friday that quarterback Mac Jones will play after dealing with back spasms and an illness earlier in the week. It will be interesting to see how he looks with all this considered. Jones fared the best with the 11th ranked 2.9 CPOE for the week, with only 13 quarterbacks having a positive number. His -0.1 EPA ranked 25th with a lack of scoring on offense (1TD) in their 20-7 loss to the Dolphins.
Similarly, Pittsburgh and quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s slightly better 24th ranked EPA. Trubisky also landed below the mean in CPOE, with a -7.1 number that ranked 27th. We know the Pittsburgh offense has to provide much more on Sunday, and this really puts this point into context when viewing the rest of the league. Specifically have to be able to extend drives, one of the biggest things on my radar for Sunday.
Do you expect a low scoring affair, or can either quarterback step up for their team this week?
I also wanted to look at completed and intended air yards for week one:
Both quarterbacks were above the mean in intended air yards, but just below in the completed variety. Jones had the eighth ranked intended air yards number of 8.8, along with a completed air yards number of 5.4 (19th). Hopefully the Pittsburgh defense can wreak havoc again this week sans edge rusher T.J. Watt, who unfortunately went to injured reserve due to his pec injury.
Trubisky also had a respectable 8.1 intended air yards number that ranked 11th, but had a lower 5.6 completed air yard number that ranked 16th. As I outlined in my passing locations charting from week one, only three of his nine attempts past ten yards were completed and 2/6 on explosive air yards. Pittsburgh did have four explosive gains overall, but the team really needs explosive plays through the air without a consistent offensive attack this season, which would obviously aid the earlier point of keeping drives moving.
Will Pittsburgh be able to improve in this regard against the Patriots? Can the Steelers defense keep up their dominance against New England?
One last thing for the position, here are the quarterbacks time to throw numbers and aggressiveness (number of throws into tight coverage where the defender is within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion as a percentage):
These were two data points that Trubisky had strong tendencies in, with the second highest aggressiveness of 28.9%. This is an acceptable number if you are an elite quarterback such as Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, but can get you in trouble as we saw with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow against Pittsburgh’s defense last week (four interceptions). Hopefully we can see the Steelers wide receivers get more separation (I’ll highlight later) along with improved timing on Trubisky’s throws overall as they aim for a better offensive showing.
Speaking of timing, Trubisky was above the mean with a quick time to throw number of 2.6 which ranked ninth. Jones was one quarterback to top this, with a 2.5 time to throw number which was the fifth fastest, along with less tight window throws on a just above the mean 16.7%. It will be interesting to see what all the quarterback numbers look like in the matchup, with completed air yards and a lower aggressiveness percentage highest on my radar for Trubisky (which will likely create stronger results across the board).
Which quarterback will have the stronger performance?
Now for the running backs, here are the rushing stats for week one:
Steelers running back Najee Harris had the fewest rushing yards (23) of running backs with at least 10 attempts! Obviously, this is a huge factor that must change to aid the hopeful improvement for the offense in week two. He participated in full at Friday’s practice, very encouraging after seeing the play he was injured on in week one, so we may see more of backup Jaylen Warren who had three rushes for seven yards. The offensive line did show improvements compared to some painful preseason play, and really hope the run game can be leaned upon to ease the strain on the pass game that could use the help to say the least.
This visual also helps me highlight that no Patriots running back had more than 10 rush attempts. New England running back Damien Harris led the team in week one with nine attempts for 48 yards for a healthy 5.3 yards per attempt, with 36 of those coming after contact forcing two missed tackles. Rhamondre Stevenson had eight carries for 25 yards and also forced a missed tackle, so a key I’ll be looking for in this game for Pittsburgh’s defense is to have another strong showing in the tackling department as our own Josh Carney highlighted against the Bengals.
Receiving from the backfield will be an interesting element to the game as well. Najee Harris obviously provides a big threat here, but was only targeted twice last week for three yards and had the only offensive touchdown. Patriots running back Ty Montgomery leads the team with four targets and three receptions at the position, but was placed on injured reserve. Damien Harris and Stevenson each have two targets and receptions, with the former faring stronger in the yardage department along with splitting out wide on a snap.
Which running back room will fare stronger in a game where both will look to get the ground game going? Will Najee Harris have a big workload and how do you think he will fare?
There are two wide receivers for each team that had a minimum of five targets in the opener:
Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson had the most targets (10) and receptions (seven) of this group for 55 yards (7.9 per reception), highlighted by the awesome 25-yard one-handed full extension toe-tap catch. Hopefully we see more spectacular play from him, hopefully a benefactor of more explosive connection like this with Trubisky down the field, along with a larger variety of routes. Pittsburgh wide receiver Chase Claypool fits this bill as well, with his four catches on five targets going for only 18 yards on a 6.8 average distance of target. He was surprisingly Pittsburgh’s leading rusher in the opener though, providing 36 yards on a whopping six attempts. While I’m not advocating for that amount of opportunity again, it is a good wrinkle highlighted by the long 15-yard gain. Also hoping to see Steelers wide receiver George Pickens make more of an impact following a quiet game.
Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers leads the team with six targets and four catches, and matched Johnson’s 55 yards for a nice 13.8 yards per attempt and a strong 15.5 average distance of target. Fellow receiver Nelson Agholor had the second most team targets (5), catching three of them for 28 yards on a lower 9.4 average distance of target. The others in the position room that garnered targets in week one were DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne, with the former getting much more opportunity on 56 snaps in a tough primary matchup (Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard) compared to the latter’s two snaps.
Let’s get more context with cushion (distance in yards between the receiver and the defender they’re lined up against at the time of snap on all targets) and separation numbers (distance in yards between the receiver and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion):
Agholor created the most separation by far in the outlook view, as well as the fourth most across the entire NFL in week one against the Dolphins. Two of his three catches came against zone coverage, which plays a big factor in the number, but could prove to be a big factor if Pittsburgh plays quite a bit of zone (33 zone snaps compared to 22 man snaps in the opener) as our own Alex Kozora broke down in this great video. Meyers received the least amount of cushion at the line in the outlook, and second least league-wide, contributing factors to his also second lowest separation numbers across the NFL, giving additional context to his team leading stats mentioned earlier.
All four receivers on both teams were above the mean in least amount of cushion at the line of scrimmage, and it will be interesting to see what this looks like, will the Pittsburgh defense crowd the line more in comparison to the Bengals matchup with the lack of an elite #1 receiver for New England? Also interested to see what the coverage schemes look like for Pittsburgh, and if there are more week-to-week adjustments from the new coaches Teryl Austin and Brian Flores.
Claypool was given the second least cushion in the outlook and eight league-wide, a contributing factor to a low separation number. Although it is only one week, his separation is slightly improved thus far, compared to last season when I highlighted his number being near the bottom of the league consistently. Hopefully we can see a positive trend here. Johnson’s results are surprising given his reputation as an elite separator (seventh least in the opener), and for all the public grief Trubisky is getting, I’m really looking for the receivers to step up and hopefully more variety in route concepts to create more ideal opportunities for their quarterback on Sunday.
One more facet of context for the position, let’s see how they fared in percent of team’s air yards (TAY = receivers total intended air yards over the sum of the team’s total intended air yards) along with the players average yards after catch (YAC):
Here we get great context in how each player was utilized and how their yards were created. Right away, we can see Pittsburgh’s top receivers lacked tremendously in the YAC department, with Claypool’s 0.6 result tying for the sixth lowest mark league wide. He fared well in this regard last season, so hopefully we see a positive trend moving forward. One key I noted from watching the game on Johnson was having to come back to the ball on most of his targets, whether the pass took his momentum backward or doing so on YAC, but I did not expect to see him with the lowest rank in the NFL, and the only negative YAC number of -0.3! These two must provide more across the board, and especially looking for Johnson to do so considering his high TAY of 40.5% that ranked 16th in the NFL, and hoping Claypool can get more involved in the deep passing game, with a low TAY of 13.14% that was fifth least of the qualifying wide receivers.
Meyers had a strong TAY of 34.9% but had a low 0.5 YAC number. It will be interesting to see how he fares against the Steelers secondary, considering most of his snaps came from the slot where Pittsburgh cornerback Arthur Maulet played all of his coverage snaps in week one (with a 53.3 PFF coverage grade). Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton played the second most slot snaps (26) in the opener, and had the best PFF slot grade of 91.4 in the NFL! I would expect to see him play the slot more considering cornerback Levi Wallace missed time in the game (33 snaps). Agholor fared best in the outlook with an 8.0 YAC, good for eighth best in the NFL. He primarily played out wide, so if this information holds true, Pittsburgh cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and/or Wallace will need to be strong in route recognition and especially finishing plays as tacklers.
How do you think the receivers will fare in the matchup?
The tight ends are intriguing for this showdown, and first I wanted to provide the NFL stat leaders at the position:
Tight end Pat Freiermuth shined in a largely disappointing opener for the Pittsburgh offense, having the second most targets (10) of the 15 qualifying tight ends, with five of those going for receptions (T-3rd) and 75 yards (3rd) and a long of 31 on the flea flicker last week. The Patriots were one of several teams with a tight end that did not make the graph, with Jonnu Smith just missing the cut with four targets. Smith caught three of those for 33 yards, with his long going for 15. Hunter Henry is also a quality player in the position room for New England, primarily known for being a red zone threat the Steelers defense would be wise to account for. He had three targets and two catches for 20 yards on a healthy 12.3 average distance of target, which could be a big factor against Pittsburgh’s linebackers.
Now for a similar view to the wide receivers, looking at TAY and YAC for the tight end position:
Freiermuth jumps out as one of only four tight ends about the mean in both data points. His 6.3 YAC ranked third at the position, along with providing a 24.1% TAY that ranked fourth for week one! The free play in the opener highlights an explosive air yard play, and the flea flicker mentioned earlier an example of the YAC he provided. Here’s to hoping he can provide a similar balance to both facets of the pass game that is searching for answers. One area that I noted in my week one recap that I was disappointed with was blocking at the position, no doubt this has to get better, with tight end Zach Gentry and especially Freiermuth making my notes regularly, and not in a good way.
Do you think Freiermuth will have another strong game? Can the Steelers tight ends provide better blocking than week one? How do you think New England’s tight ends will fare?
Now let’s look at the offensive line outlook, with PFF grades from last week:
Overall, we see neither team had a strong outing in the run game according to PFF, with Patriots left tackle Trent Brown having the only 70+ grade (70.4) but a low 55.5 as a pass blocker. He was limited in Friday’s practice with an ankle injury, so a huge factor of the game with edge rusher Alex Highsmith matching up here, and it is crucial he step up and capitalize as the top player at the position without Watt, building on his great three sack performance in the opener. The strongest grade overall came from Patriots rookie left guard Cole Strange as a pass blocker (87.2), but struggled as a run blocker (57). It will be interesting to see how he fares against defensive lineman Cameron Heyward (and company), considering he taught another rookie some welcome to the NFL lessons last week. Right guard Michael Onwenu also fared well in the pass blocking grades (76.7) along with a 63-run block grade. Patriots center David Andrews fared poorly as a pass blocker (51.2) along with a 64.1 run block grade. Patriots right tackle Isaiah Wynn also had a strong 83.9 pass blocking grade along with low (but above the mean) 60.5 run block grade. This is a key position in the matchup considering this is where Watt would line up, and it will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh’s edge rushers fare here, especially Malik Reed who is expected to see the largest increase in opportunities.
Pittsburgh’s line showed some improvements from the preseason, with strongest grade came from guard James Daniels, who had a 79.3 pass block grade, but below the mean as a run blocker (56.2). All of the Steelers starters were below the mean as run blockers except for tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (68.7), with a nearly identical 68.2 pass block grade, allowing a pressure and was just below the mean in the outlook. Fellow tackle Dan Moore had an improved outing compared to poor preseason play overall, with a 57.3 run block grade along with a slightly strong (in my opinion) 76.8 pass block grade, allowing a pressure/hit on Trubisky. Likewise, guard Kevin Dotson and center Mason Cole each allowed a pressure/hit (and were also below the mean in run blocking), which is a big key for the game as we transition to the defensive side of the ball.
Can the Pittsburgh o-line show improvements in pressures allowed? How about opening things up in the run game? How will the Steelers d-line fare against the Patriots respectable group?
With pressures in mind, let’s look at the matchups on defense, viewing pressures and blitz percentages across the NFL from opening week:
As we can see from the graph, New England was above the mean in both data points, blitzing and applying pressure at the fourth highest rate against the Dolphins offensive line, who most agree are a bottom third of the league type of group similar to Pittsburgh. This is one of the biggest game factors in my opinion, and if the data and success for New England is similar, expect another tough day for the Pittsburgh offense.
The Steelers defense landed lower than expected with their “Blitzburgh” mantra, shedding light on how they schemed against the Bengals. Their blitz percentage ranked 29th, along with a below the mean pressure percentage but rising in the ranks 24th. It will be interesting to see how they scheme this sans Watt, and with less elite talent on the Patriots offense, I expect to see a higher blitz rate with hopefully more pressure that will likely need more manufacturing.
Let’s wrap up with a total defense view, with yards per play (run and pass) along with turnover percentage:
This visual highlights the incredible facets of Pittsburgh’s week one clinic on defense, especially in turnover percentage, ranking second only to the Rams with the percentage highlighting the Steelers highest play count of the week of 96 on a league high five turnovers. So, obviously time of possession is one of the biggest factors I’d like to see change in week two, which means the offense is playing well and creating more scoring opportunities, and likewise keeping the defense fresh with less quantity on their shoulders with hopefully similar quality. New England’s offense had a high number of turnovers in the opener (3), so hopefully the Steelers defense can win the turnover battle again. Interested to see safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s quality of play coming of an other-worldly performance, and it will be interesting to see if he comes out with his hair on fire again, a big key in my opinion with the reigning defensive player of the year sidelined.
How do you think the defense will fare without T.J. Watt? Can Fitzpatrick have another elite performance in week two?
New England was also strong last week in the yards allowed department, with a 5.2 yards per play number that tied for the 12th rank. It will be interesting to see if they are able to provide a similar performance, and if Pittsburgh’s offense can take care of the football once again, with the turnover battle being crucial to a win any week with the Steelers hopefully coming out on top against a team that had zero takeaways in the opener.
Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley leads the team with seven combined tackles along with a sack. He was limited in Friday’s practice with a toe injury but seems good to go for Sunday. Two other players had sacks in the opener, edge rusher Deatrich Wise Jr. who also had a forced fumble and linebacker Matt Judon, who also had a whopping four quarterback hits. Safety Kyle Dugger leads the team with two tackles for loss and fellow safety Devin McCourty is always a handful, providing great instinctual play and six tackles in the opener. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan was the final player with five tackles or more, but seemingly fared poor in coverage. Can the Steelers exploit this if he struggles, getting Freiermuth going again? Cornerback Jonathan Jones provided a second forced fumble in the game, highlighting that while the Patriots did not have a takeaway, they created a couple of opportunities. Could this be a factor on Sunday?
How do you think this matchup will play out? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.