PITTSBURGH, PA — For just the fourth time in 15 games, the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) handed the Patriots (9-5) a demoralizing 17-10 defeat at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.
For the first time in the Brady and Belichick era, the Patriots were held to ten or fewer points as a team for the third time in a game this season.
The Patriots offense had issues with drops, penalties, and some suspect decisions late by the quarterback, but a complete meltdown on this scale against a defense they’ve notoriously dominated starts with the coaching staff.
After the game, head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged numerous times that the Patriots’ coaching staff on both sides of the ball needs to do a better job, which is usually a strength of this team but hasn’t been at times this season.
For starters, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Patriots were called for a season-high 14 penalties continuously shooting themselves in the foot, although some of those calls were suspect.
And although the coaching was poor, the common theme for the Patriots in all five of their losses this season is that they lose along the line of scrimmage; the run defense was abysmal, the pass rush non-existent, and they struggled to protect Tom Brady at times in this one, and NFL games are won and lost in the trenches.
With all that said, let’s go through ten things we learned from the Patriots’ fifth loss of the season:
1. Currently, the Patriots Offense is Not Good at Situational Football
One of the hallmarks of a Bill Belichick team is situational football, and right now the offense is not a good team on third down or in the red zone.
After Sunday’s game, where the Patriots were 3-10 on third down and 0-3 in the red zone, they’re now 12th in the league converting on 36.2 percent of third-down passing plays and 16th in red zone efficiency. On their current pace, this year’s Patriots have the lowest red zone touchdown rate since the 2013 season at 58 percent. Plus, in goal-to-go situations, the Patriots rank 26th in the NFL scoring a touchdown 63.6 percent of the time (0-1 on Sunday).
A few costly drops plagued the Patriots by Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and James White (partially on Brady) and penalties really killed them in the red zone, but they’re not a good football team right now on the money downs.
This scribe thinks those issues stem from a lack of identity or chemistry. The team usually has a few go-to plays that they can call in gotta-have-it situations. Right now, it appears as if the Patriots don’t know what that play call is or who the ball is going to when they have to have a third down conversion or a touchdown in the red zone.
2. Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels Needs to be Better
For most of the season, I’ve preached execution over play-calling when it comes to the Patriots’ inconsistencies on offense. However, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had one of his worst days at the office on Sunday against the Steelers.
First, when the Patriots offense struggles, a lot of the time its because they can’t get certain pieces of the offense involved in the passing game. When Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon, and James White only manage eight catches for 65 yards the offense is going to struggle. Those are three critical weapons for Tom Brady, and the Patriots didn’t do a good enough job of incorporating those three into the game plan, especially Gordon.
In many ways, this game resembled the Tennessee game when it came to the play-calling. McDaniels had a script of plays focused on beating the Steelers defense on throws into the middle of the field and when Pittsburgh took that away, McDaniels never adjusted. Gordon was matched up one-on-one on the outside, but Brady’s first read continuously took him to the middle of the field rather than going with another approach when it was clear that Mike Tomlin wasn’t going to allow the Patriots to beat him the same way they have in the past. After the game, Brady said the Pats need to do a better job of adjusting to the new wrinkles that defenses throw at them. Brady didn’t mean it as a direct jab to his OC, but it’s hard to take it any other way.
Second, McDaniels has a bad habit of calling second and long runs, and today he dusted off the Edelman motion screen on a few third and mediums that stood no chance. That play, one we’ve seen the Patriots run down by the goal line or on two-point plays, is designed to pick up two or three yards, not five or six.
Although drops, penalties, and protection issues led to some of the Patriots’ struggles on offense; this game is as much on McDaniels and the coaching staff as any this season.
3. Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon, James White Go Missing in Pittsburgh
Entering Sunday’s game, Rob Gronkowski perpetually owned the Steelers in his career. It was clear from the first quarter on that the Steelers weren’t going to allow that to continue, and they took Gronk out of the game with a few different coverages either double-teaming him or passing him off in zone coverages with multiple defenders keeping an eye on the Patriots tight end. After the game, both Gronk and Brady acknowledged that the Steelers threw some double-teams Gronkowski’s way. Unfortunately for the Patriots, the Pittsburgh defense paying extra attention to Gronk didn’t open up things for others as it has in the past. In all, Gronk finished with two catches for 21 yards
As for Gordon, he only had one catch on two targets. Two targets just aren’t enough for Gordon who has become a vital piece of this offense. In the first half, Gordon dropped a third-down pass that would’ve likely moved the sticks which may have factored into Brady’s decision making to look elsewhere. But it felt watching the game live that McDaniels could’ve done more to create some opportunities for Brady to get the ball to Gordon.
Then there’s White, whose offensive production is directly tied to the Patriots’ ability to win games, and yet again he was an afterthought on Sunday. It’s possible that the Patriots are managing White’s touches to unleash him in the postseason, but the lack of plays drawn up for one of the best pass-catching backs in the league after he was to start the season makes no sense. Speaking to White after the game, he told me that sometimes the game plan focuses on other players and wouldn’t throw the coaching staff under the bus when asked if he’d like a larger role moving forward. However, I’m not a captain of the team like White, and I can confidently say he needs more touches for this offense to hit its ceiling.
4. Tom Brady Shoulders Some of the Blame, But Not Primary Reason For Offenses Struggles
Overall, Tom Brady’s performance on Sunday afternoon wasn’t near the top of my list of reasons that the Patriots offense only scored ten points. His interception in the fourth quarter, a throw he admitted he was trying to throw away, was a costly mistake that shouldn’t happen. However, Brady threw the ball and made the right decision more times than not, and it felt like the team around him let him down with penalties, poor protection, and an inability to scheme or physically create separation.
As we saw for most of the game against Miami last week, if you give Brady time and open receivers he’s still more than capable of moving the ball.
And the offense did at times with Brady throwing for nearly 300 yards (279) and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt.
If there’s a sequence of plays, other than the interception, where it felt like Brady deserved some criticism it was down by the goal line on the Patriots’ final drive. On the last three meaningful plays, Brady threw three-straight prayers into the end zone instead of hitting James White on a few check-downs to get the Pats closer.
On third down, in a situation where the Patriots were clearly in four-down territory, Brady had White wide open underneath for a catch and run opportunity. Instead, Brady sailed a pass over everyone’s head for an incompletion.
Brady can be better, but he seems to be searching for answers at a time of the year where the Patriots offense should be clicking.
5. Patriots Run Defense Continues to Fall of a Cliff
In what has become a theme for the Patriots this season, the run defense is easily the worst part of this team right now. Over the last three weeks, the Patriots have allowed nearly 7.5 yards per rush as they’ve seen things completely come off the rails in this department.
This week, the Steelers’ third-string running back, Jaylen Samuels, ran for 142 yards on 7.5 yards per rush (19 carries) and the Steelers had seven rushes of ten or more yards as a team. Let’s start with some of the ways Pittsburgh successfully ran the ball on Sunday, and then we’ll get to the fundamental issues I see with the run defense:
The scheme of the day for the Steelers offense was a strong-side toss play to Samuels that used misdirection and Samuels’ ability to move in the open field against the Patriots defense.
On the play, you can see how the toss gets the Patriots to flow towards the strong side, and then Samuels cuts back across the formation to the weak side into daylight.
That run by Samuels, however, sums up nicely the Patriots’ issues in stopping the run at the moment.
From this perspective, it starts with the interior players on the Patriots’ defensive line. On that play, you can see Lawrence Guy get pushed backward by a single block from left guard Ramon Foster, and that opens up a huge hole.
At the moment, the Patriots’ defensive tackles are struggling mightily to anchor at the point of attack (press blockers) or shed blockers to make plays on the ball carrier. We seldom see penetration from this unit, and the Patriots had to adjust by putting players in every gap across the line of scrimmage to account for the DTs’ inability to make plays, essentially run blitzing. That’s not something that they can rely upon and makes you extremely vulnerable in the passing game with so few players on the backend to cover. It forces them to ask a lot out of their outside corners in man-to-man situations. If the Patriots want to improve their run defense, they need better play from the guys in the middle of the defense.
6. Patriots’ Offensive Line Struggles in Pass Protection
Offensively, other than the coaching, the Patriots lost this game due to what was a bad day from the offensive line in pass protection. The Steelers defense, to its credit, has one of the league’s better pass rushes and played like it on Sunday. However, like any team, inadequate protection from the guys up front can torpedo an offense. Brady was hurried a number of times in the first half, and that spilled over at times in the second half as well, and the rush disrupted the timing of the offense and had Brady dancing away from pressure in the pocket on far too many occasions. We talk a lot about the quarterback and skill players, but none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t give those players enough time to operate. On Sunday, the Steelers’ pass rush won the battle up front with the Patriots’ offensive line, and in many ways, that’s the story of the game.
7. Patriots’ Secondary Keeps Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster in Check
If the Patriots had won this game, we’d all be singing the praises of the secondary led by top corner Stephon Gilmore and rookie JC Jackson. Those two played a lot of man coverage on the Steelers’ top two wideouts, and Brown and Smith-Schuster were held to eight catches for 89 yards and a touchdown on the day. During his postgame press conference, head coach Bill Belichick mentioned that the Patriots put the defensive backs in a lot of man coverage situations applauding their effort saying, “I thought our DBs really battled them…we covered them, I’d say, competitively.”
Here’s a great example of how the Patriots covered Brown and Smith-Schuster on a third-down sack in the first quarter. The Patriots have Gilmore on Brown at the top of the screen and Jackson on Smith-Schuster in the slot at the bottom of the screen. Gilmore played Brown with outside leverage with a post safety in the middle of the field, and Jackson played JuJu into some safety help in the middle of the field. However, both players were mostly on an island on this play and covered their assignments long enough for the pass rush to get to Big Ben.
Also, Jackson made a game-saving pass breakup on Smith-Schuster that could’ve been the turning point of the game if things went differently for the Patriots offense. Jackson, once again, displays terrific ball skills to get his hand/arm inside of Smith-Schuster’s to rip the ball out to get the Pats off the field on third down.
Although the final result wasn’t what they wanted, the Patriots’ secondary deserves credit for limiting a potent Steelers passing attack to 235 yards while also intercepting two passes.
8. Patriots Get Running Game Going in Second Half
One of the bright spots for the Patriots offense on Sunday was the resurgence of the running game. Although the Patriots only ran the ball 19 times, they gained over five yards per rush, and it was the running game that moved the ball down the field in the third quarter on their second scoring drive.
On the Patriots’ longest run of the game, a 13-yarder by Sony Michel, the Pats running back got some help from the guys up front.
The Patriots ran an inside zone scheme that they executed to perfection as you can see the flow of the play takes the defensive line out of it, and they get two good backside blocks from Gronk and Julian Edelman to push the wave of defenders past Michel who remains patient before exploding into the wide open area of the field.
As we’ve seen for most of the season, the Patriots need a potent rushing attack to bring balance to the offense.
9. Play-Action Passing Attack Patriots’ Only Option Through the Air
Other than the running game, the Patriots’ only consistent weapon on offense was the play-action passing game. Brady was ten for ten for 162 yards and a touchdown off of play-action, but those numbers plummeted to 16-27 for 134 yards and an interception without play-action. That’s the difference between a 152.1 passer rating and a 56.7 rating for Brady.
On the Patriots’ lone touchdown of the game, they ran one of their staple shot plays, the Yankee concept, to a wide open Chris Hogan. Officially, the closest defender was nearly 20 yards away from Hogan when he caught the ball according to NextGen Stats.
On the concept, the Patriots like to run a fake fly sweep with play-action in the backfield to slow down the pass rush and suck the linebackers towards the line of scrimmage. Then, they ran Josh Gordon on a post and Hogan on a deep over route crossing with Gordon at a mesh point in the middle of the field. All three defenders in the back end of the Steelers defense went with Gordon, leaving Hogan wide open for the score.
The Patriots couldn’t use play-action to punch in another touchdown to tie the game or take the lead in the second half, but a strong running game paired with a successful play-action passing attack is something they can build off of moving forward.
10. Pats Pass Rush Struggles Against Steelers’ Offensive Line
The Patriots’ pass rush made some plays early, but the Steelers’ offensive line held them in check for most of the game. Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler told me that the Steelers OL did a nice job of playing together, passing off the Pats’ stunt schemes and picking up the Patriots’ blitzes. What we saw with the pass rush was that unless the Patriots scheme ways to get rushers free, they have a tough time generating pressure. That’s a difficult task against a Steelers offensive line that’s arguably the best pass-protecting unit in the league and very seldom allows free runners at the quarterback. Staying true to their form, the Pittsburgh offensive line didn’t allow the Patriots’ schemes to lead to breakdowns, and the Patriots pass rush was unable to affect Roethlisberger as a result.
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