FOXBOROUGH — When you scout the Pittsburgh Steelers offense it’s easy to get infatuated with wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“You’re not going to get anybody better than these two guys, plus the quarterback. They’ve got a lot of other guys, too, but I mean, these two receivers are elite – elite elite,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick of the duo.
However, as is the case with most successful offenses, things for Pittsburgh start up front with their offensive line.
This season, the Steelers have the league’s top pass-blocking offensive line with a 90.6 pass blocking efficiency rating and have allowed the third-fewest quarterback pressures in the NFL (99), according to Pro Football Focus.
And the Steelers have seamlessly transitioned from running back Le’Veon Bell to James Conner mainly due to the play of the guys blocking for the two backs.
In fact, over the last four seasons, Bell’s replacement in the backfield when he was out due to injury, suspension, or holdout have produced at almost the same rate as the two-time All-Pro on the ground.
Overall, the Steelers’ offensive line was rated the top group in the NFL through 14 weeks by Pro Football Focus.
“They’re very sound — the technique’s good. They do an excellent job of protecting the quarterback, especially inside with [Maurkice] Pouncey, [Ramon] Foster, [David] DeCastro,” Belichick said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. It’s very seldom there’s a guy that runs free or runs through the line. They get a hat on him, and they block him. It’s a struggle even to get close to the quarterback.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a very fine line. Like you said, and like Bill stated earlier – I didn’t hear that – but in watching it, they’ve got a terrific offensive line, they do a great job with protections, they handle twist games, blitzes, exotic looks. They handle them all well,” added de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
As Belichick stated, the Steelers’ trio on the interior of the offensive line is an elite group.
“That’s probably three of the top players in the league at those positions,” he said. “They’re strong. They’re big. They’re really long. Those guys have real long arms, so it’s hard to get into them. They play well together.”
This season, DeCastro (sixth, 86.9) and Foster (ninth, 85.2) both rank in the top ten among interior lineman in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking grades, and Pouncey is 12th among centers (77.3).
Plus, to make it even more challenging to generate pressure, Roethlisberger’s average time to release of 2.36 seconds is currently the fastest time of any quarterback in the NFL (min. 115 dropbacks).
For the Patriots, disrupting Roethlisberger in the pocket will test a resurgent pass rush that currently ranks 10th in pressure rate this season and sacked Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler a combined five times last week.
And they’ll have to prove that a struggling run defense has fixed its issues, especially if Conner is healthy enough to play on Sunday.
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Over the last two weeks, the Patriots allowed over eight yards per carry to the Vikings and Dolphins.
“The run game’s been something that we need to do a much better job of coaching, do a better job of playing. We’ve got to do a better job of getting off blocks, got to do a better job with our angles in the secondary. It’s something we’re going to spend a lot of time on,” Flores said.
The Patriots defense will look to bounce back from an underwhelming effort against the Dolphins in Miami and will have to start by competing against one of the best offensive lines they’ll face all season.
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