FOXBORO, MA — When the Patriots play their annual matchup with the Steelers we are accustomed to seeing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski dominate the Pittsburgh defense.
Since Mike Tomlin took over as the head coach in 2007, Brady is 7-1 against Tomlin’s Steelers with a ridiculous 23-1 touchdown to interception ratio and a 122.7 passer rating.
As for Gronkowski, he’s been haunting the Steelers to the tune of 110 receiving yards per game and eight touchdowns in six contests against Pittsburgh.
And as an offense, the Patriots are averaging 30.3 points in nine games against the Steelers since Tomlin’s first season as the head coach.
So we know the Patriots offense has its way with the Steelers defense, but the question now is why and will they have the same success on Sunday?
Over the years, the Steelers have tried multiple game plans to slow down the Patriots’ passing attack.
“I feel like they’ll throw a lot of things. I mean, I’ve seen a lot from them before – a lot of coverages, a lot of split-safety, post-safety, man, zone,” said Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. “They switch it up a lot, too, and so I’ve had a couple guys before – like a linebacker covered me one time, a safety or a corner.”
But Pittsburgh hasn’t had the right personnel to stop the Patriots tight end, which exacerbates their issues defending the middle of the field, and that trend has continued.
This season, Pittsburgh has allowed 144.2 receiving yards per game to receivers aligned in the slot or in tight to the formation, the second-most in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
That stat is backed up by the fact that the Steelers have allowed the eighth-most receiving yards to tight ends this season (853 yards) and the second-most yards to slot receivers (1,512).
In other words, the Patriots offense, loaded at those two positions, has a favorable matchup against the Steelers defense once again on Sunday.
Below, we’ll go over some of the ways that Pittsburgh’s last few opponents have taken advantage of this weakness in their defense.
SLOT WIDE RECEIVERS
One of the storylines of the Steelers’ loss to the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago was Pittsburgh’s coverage on Pro Bowler Keenan Allen.
In that game, Allen caught seven passes on nine targets for 70 of his 148 receiving yards when a linebacker was the nearest defender.
The Chargers were able to get Allen matched up on a linebacker by lining up in empty formations, something teams have done regularly against the Steelers this season.
Pittsburgh’s defense has faced the second-most plays with zero players in the backfield, and as a result, have given up the most passing yards in the NFL in those situations (747).
The main reason for the heavy focus on empty formations by the Steelers’ opponents this season is how they match those looks in their nickel defense.
Here, the Chargers put Allen in the inside slot with tight end Virgil Green in the outside slot. The Steelers have five defensive backs on the field but opt to keep a post safety in the middle of the field rather than drop a player down to cover Allen instead of the linebacker. The decision to play with a post safety in their nickel package forces linebacker L.J. Fort to match up with Allen man-to-man. Allen uses a stutter release and gets open so quickly that Rivers finds him despite the defense jumping offsides on the play.
The Steelers do have an adequate slot corner in Mike Hilton, but Hilton is inconsistent, and teams have schemed ways to get favorable matchups inside against the Pittsburgh defense.
Look for the Patriots to use wide receiver Julian Edelman similarly to how the Chargers deployed Allen, or if Hilton shadows Edelman, expect to see the Patriots use a second slot receiver to get a matchup they like.
As for the tight end position, the Steelers have tried multiple defenders in man coverage on tight ends including safeties Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett, but both have struggled.
On this play, Burnett draws Raiders tight end Jared Cook in man coverage out of the inside slot once again. Cook beats a weak jam from Burnett with an outside release and runs an out route at the sticks to convert on third down.
Gronkowski had his way with Steelers safety Sean Davis last season, and he should like what he sees if Burnett is lined up across from him on Sunday as well.
Finally, as the Patriots have in the past, the Raiders and quarterback Derek Carr also picked apart the Steelers’ zone coverage over the middle in last week’s win.
Like the Patriots, teams this season noticed that the Steelers have a difficult time passing off routes in their zone coverages partially due to personnel but also because of the scheme.
Oakland tormented the Steelers on a concept that the Patriots also ran multiple times last week in Miami: the double-slant/flat design.
And notice they’re in an empty formation on the following play.
In this route design, the Raiders empty the backfield in a similar fashion to the Chargers in Week 13 against Pittsburgh. Then, they ran a double-slant with a flat route at the top of the screen and a simple slant/flat combination at the bottom of the screen. In the Steelers’ scheme, they want to switch these routes in their zone coverage to avoid the rub or pick. However, the linebacker at the top of the screen overplays the flat route as he fails to diagnose the slant/flat combination in time, and is in poor position to switch onto Cook who’s running a slant into the middle of the field. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh is in a two-deep look, so there’s no safety in the middle of the field to contest the catch once the linebacker loses control. Cook hauls in the pass and has himself another chunk play.
Last season, the Steelers played mostly man coverage against the Patriots after the Pats torched their zones in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.
But if they go zone again on Sunday, the Patriots will play with the Steelers’ rules in those coverages as they have in the past, and like the Raiders did last week.
As a stat geek, I’m obligated to tell you that the only thing that matters on Sunday is the 2018 rosters for the Patriots and Steelers.
The fact that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick beat the Steelers back in 2007 or 2016 will have no impact on the outcome of this week’s game.
However, the Steelers’ pass defense has struggled to cover slot receivers and tight ends all season, and that has been Brady and the Pats’ strength for two decades.
Last week, tight end Rob Gronkowski had his first 100-yard game since Week 1, and this week, Gronk has another juicy matchup against a team that struggles to defend his position.
And Pittsburgh hasn’t found an answer for defending slot wide receivers all season, presenting a favorable matchup for Julian Edelman, who’s eighth among all receivers in yards per route run out of the slot this season (1.74, min. 50 percent of snaps).
The Patriots have notoriously dominated the Steelers, and the blueprint is there for the New England offense to continue that trend.
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