Entering Thursday night’s matchup in Pittsburgh, I detailed three keys to the Patriots snapping their five-game losing streak against the Steelers. The defense needed to contain one of the league’s best backfield tandems in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, while the offense needed to slow down T.J. Watt and get Ezekiel Elliott going amid several injuries at the skill positions.
But before diving into how well they accomplished these goals, I want to look at Bailey Zappe’s stunning 1st half production and Shakespearian 2nd-half fall.
Receivers came up big for Zappe on downfield throws after poor execution on catchable passes last Sunday. The quarterback went 4 of 6 for 86 yards and a pair of touchdowns on passes of 10+ air yards, all of which came in the 1st half.
His best throws were a crosser to JuJu Smith-Schuster after climbing to avoid pressure and two perfectly placed end-zone shots to Hunter Henry. Zappe’s willingness to step up and his touchdown off an RPO fake were prime examples of what he gives the offense over Mac Jones, though protection also held up well early on. Jones was intercepted on a similar screen fake in Miami, floating a gift to Jalen Ramsey off a fadeaway throw with pressure closing in. Bill O’Brien deserves credit for his excellent play designs and use of empty formations, as well.
But while Zappe put up impressive numbers and made his share of plays in the 1st half, he was also plagued by inaccuracy and overly quick decision-making, leading to several missed opportunities.
Smith-Schuster bailed him out of an underthrown corner route, he was nearly intercepted on an uncatchable shot to Tyquan Thornton, and he missed an open Henry on an early 3rd & 10. His poor ball placement, particularly on short passes, went from an early obstacle to a near-turnover machine as the game progressed.
Including his deep miss to Thornton, I counted three interceptable passes from Zappe throughout the game. He also missed several opportunities for bigger plays.
A quick checkdown to a covered JuJu-Smith-Schuster was exacerbated by Zappe throwing behind his target, leading to a deflection-turned-interception. The quarterback had Hunter Henry open over the middle, and he could’ve taken a shot to Thornton on a post if the safety bit up. He also threw behind Thornton after scrambling out of a T.J. Watt pressure, giving Joey Porter Jr. a chance at a pick.
To Zappe’s credit, it didn’t help that receivers sometimes stumbled out of breaks, and Thornton still looked slow in his routes.
New England’s interior, particularly Sidy Sow, also gave up drive-ending sacks during two minutes and their opening 2nd-half drive. These pressures seemed to influence Zappe’s accelerated process on the interception.
Zappe showed good decision-making on plays where he threw the ball away or scrambled when he disliked what he saw. I thought he seemed rushed on some of these plays and missed some makeable windows, but it’s hard to blame him when coverage was often smothering.
Overall, there’s still a lot to work on with Zappe, but the spark he’s given the offense is undeniable. Ideally, his decision-making and precision will sharpen as he gains experience, but that’s easier said than done with an inconsistent supporting cast. If Smith-Schuster sustains the level of play we saw against his old team and Zappe’s rapport with Henry builds, we could see more stability on offense. Their ceiling will also be an offensive line with a shaky interior.
But several other key components of New England’s win deserve recognition. So here’s how well the Patriots handled each of my keys entering Thursday night’s game.
Contain Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren
The Patriots’ top-ranked run defense has done it again. After shutting down two of the league’s best backs over their past three games, New England faced its biggest test against the two-headed monster of Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris. Harris did enter Thursday’s game with a knee injury, but he was healthy enough to avoid the inactive list and led Pittsburgh in carries on the night. Warren had also been the league’s most explosive back since November in a secondary role.
Harris had more rushing yards after contact (32) than he totaled for the game (29). His 2.4-yard average was his lowest in a game where he ran at least 10 times this season. Jaylen Warren’s 11 yards on seven carries were his fewest since Week 1 against the 49ers. Neither back registered a conversion or explosive gain on the ground.
Anfernee Jennings had a career-best game in the dominant effort, with his three tackles for loss or no gain being his most in any game as a pro.
Jennings has become an elite run defender since seizing a more prominent role in Week 3, thanks to exceptional discipline, instincts, power, and a sturdy anchor.
Against outside zone runs, Jennings and Jahlani Tavai set hard edges to funnel backs inside, leading to a pair of stops for Davon Godchaux and one for Lawrence Guy.
Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant provided assists on slot blitzes to suffocate a couple of handoffs quickly.
The heart of the defense was also stout against downhill concepts, building a wall up front (or maybe a Steel curtain?). Christian Barmore split a combo on one rep against power and freed up Tavai on another. Tavai and Ja’Whaun Bentley did a great job flying downhill to meet pullers in the hole.
Pittsburgh’s top back may have been banged up, and Warren’s minuscule role remains a mystery. But the Patriots can only defend what’s put in front of them, and last night’s performance was another masterclass.
Don’t Let T.J. Watt Wreck the Game
When Bill Belichick went on a minutes-long rant about T.J. Watt ahead of Thursday’s game, it was clear stopping the Defensive Player of the Year candidate would be a top priority. Belichick confirmed as much after the game, saying the edge rusher and wide receiver George Pickens were two players New England wanted to neutralize.
Watt presented a bounce-back opportunity for guard-turned-tackle Mike Onwenu, who had trouble against NFL sack leader Khalil Mack last Sunday. Onwenu is a road-grader whose size and power make him a brick wall in pass protection. But despite having unique athletic traits for a 350 lber, speed and quick redirection are natural weak spots for the big-bodied blocker.
Watt took an early hit to the head that may have slowed him down, but he still gave Onwenu all he could handle. Even with the Patriots providing chip help in some obvious pass situations, Watt managed to rip around the edge to get Onwenu off balance multiple times. He also won on an inside spin move late in the game to flush Zappe from the pocket. That said, Onwenu consistently held on just long enough to keep his quarterback clean and looked solid when making significant contact to stall rushes. Watt finished the game with just two hurries and didn’t register a sack or hit for the second time all season.
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien praised Onwenu for his efforts Monday morning, saying he played a “helluva game.” The head coach called slowing Watt down a “team effort,” telling reporters, “We talked about that all week. Number one was Mike…but then it was the tight ends and the backs, and formatting things correctly to try and help it.”
Watt was more impactful as a run defender, tallying three stops on five tackles.
One of these takedowns was a strong rep against Onwenu to slip under a block and keep Elliott from bouncing on duo. He also set a solid edge to force Elliott inside on outside zone.
Watt’s other tackles had more to do with scheme than dominant play. Pharaoh Brown had two strong efforts on downhill runs, one of which almost sealed the game, but Watt easily discarded New England’s tight ends in most matchups. Watt also consistently slipped pullers on long trap attempts, with overmatched linemen coming across the formation.
Shutting down a generational defender is virtually impossible. So, while I question some of the schematic choices, I wouldn’t consider Watt’s production against the run a grand indictment on New England’s blockers. But most importantly, the Patriots kept one of the planet’s best pass-rushers quiet for 60 minutes, and I’d expect Mike Onwenu to pull up this game tape during contract negotiations this offseason.
Like Rhamondre Stevenson in 2022, Ezekiel Elliott was asked to carry the load for New England’s depleted offense against the Steelers. He touched the ball over 20 times for the second week in a row, which hadn’t happened in any other games this season, leading to a season-high 22 rushes and 68 yards, his most since Week 3 against the Jets.
Elliott also posted his most productive receiving day in years. The back’s 72 receiving were his most in a game since Week 14, 2018, his seven catches were his most since facing New England in 2021, and he scored his first touchdown as a Patriot on a well-designed pick play.
It wasn’t a perfect day catching the ball, but Elliott looks more elusive in space every week, and he’s a load to bring down with a head of steam.
Unfortunately, he had far less space to operate in the ground game.
Elliott averaged just 3.1 rushing yards on the night, but 100% came after contact. The Steelers’ blitzes and late shifts allowed defenders to wreak havoc with little resistance, consistently meeting him at or behind the line of scrimmage. Players also struggled to sustain blocks and came off combo blocks to pick up second-level defenders. These issues have plagued the Patriots for most of the season, but they’ve seemed more prominent since Adrian Klemm left the team for health reasons.
New England tried creating a numbers advantage at the point of attack by deploying pullers on long trap and counter concepts, but six of their seven attempts were stopped. As I touched on in T.J. Watt’s section, he played a major role in blowing up these runs, using his explosiveness and bend to make linemen miss on the move. New England ripped off solid gains on attempts behind Trent Brown, but these wins were rare.
Elliott and his blockers had most of their success on man/duo concepts, averaging 5.1 yards on ten carries. His best runs came in the 4th quarter, with Mike Onwenu, Pharaoh Brown, Hunter Henry, and JuJu Smith-Schuster all throwing key blocks. The back also came one yard shy of sealing the game on his final carry.
Elliott’s blocking wasn’t overly helpful most of the night, but Bill O’Brien feeding his new top back was a major factor in New England snapping their losing streak.