Two of the league’s lowest-scoring offenses look to rebound from losses as the 2-10 Patriots hit the road to take on the 7-5 Steelers. The game’s over/under of 30 points would be the lowest since 1993, when the 2-11 Patriots defeated the 1-12 Bengals in a 7-2 snoozer, a matchup fitting for Thursday night.
New England’s defense has made it its mission to score points and pick up the offense’s slack, while Pittsburgh will hope for a stronger effort after underestimating a 2-10 Cardinals squad last week. Both teams boast tough defenses that keep them competitive, but their struggling offenses both lost key players last week.
Rhamondre Stevenson went down early in a 6-0 home shutout, suffering a high ankle sprain that will likely end his season. The loss was New England’s third consecutive game where the defense allowed ten or fewer points, the longest streak for any team this season. The offense’s inability to consistently move the ball or score points has made them the first team since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to lose three such games.
Backup-turned-starter Bailey Zappe brought more poise and aggressiveness than New England had at quarterback in weeks, but his decisiveness and accuracy are a work in progress. These inconsistencies were exacerbated by poor blocking and receiver play. Demario Douglas (concussion) will likely miss his second straight game and third this season due to a concussion, leaving the offense without any juice outside of the speedy but unreliable Tyquan Thornton. And after being harrassed by Khalil Mack last week, Zappe will have another future Hall of Famer breathing down his neck in T.J. Watt.
The Steelers’ offense has no shortage of talent. But despite their firepower, the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada two weeks ago reflects how mismanaged the league’s 5th-lowest scoring offense has been. Things got even grimmer for Pittsburgh after losing Kenny Pickett to an ankle injury that required surgery, thrusting Mitchel Trusbisky into a starting role.
Jaylen Warren has arguably been the league’s best back since November, but he’ll be running into one of the best ground defenses of the past decade. And with top back Najee Harris not participating in Tuesday’s practice due to a knee injury, a dynamic 1-2 punch could be missing its left hook.
While hardcore football fans will appreciate strength vs strength matchups in the trenches, folks looking for fireworks on Thursday will likely be disappointed. If last week is any indication, Zappe will try to light a spark, but his supporting cast must hold up its end of the bargain. And for the folks hoping New England doesn’t stumble into a win at Heinz–er–Acrisure Stadium, remember, history is on your side.
Here are my three keys for the Patriots to pull out a win in Pittsburgh.
Contain Jaylen Warren and (potentially) Najee Harris
You probably knew the Patriots were playing well against the run, but you might be surprised by how good it’s been. For a losing squad, a porous ground defense can signal the team has given up. But despite being plagued by injuries and being let down by their offense weekly, New England has shown tremendous effort and tenacity up front. Multiple metrics indicate they’re playing some of the best run defense of the past decade.
This is especially impressive since the Patriots have played some of the best run games and backs in the league through 13 games. They’ve faced four of the top-10 rushing offenses by EPA in the Dolphins (2nd), Bills (4th), Eagles (6th), and Cowboys (9th). New England held the Eagles’ rushers and Bills back James Cook below their yards per carry averages. They held Cowboys bellcow Tony Pollard under 50 rushing yards. Dolphins dual-threat Raheem Mostert ripped off some big runs in both matchups against New England, but the defense contained him for most of those games. They also shut down Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley after strong opening drives over their past three games.
As with any great defense, several players are doing their part and playing at a high level. Davon Godchaux has been dominant at the heart of the defense, leading the unit in run stops (8) and recording five more run tackles (15) than the next closest players since November. Peppers, Christian Barmore, Anfernee Jennings, and Jahlani Tavai have all stepped up in breakout seasons. Lawrence Guy and Ja’Whaun Bentley haven’t played to their usual standards this season but are still integral gap-pluggers.
Even undersized outside corner Jonathan Jones showed his willingness to do the dirty work with several impressive reps against the Chargers.
Jabrill Peppers, PFF’s 2nd-highest graded run defender, said the defense embraces the challenge, saying, “We like playing good running teams.” When I asked about the keys to that success, Peppers highlighted trust and aggressiveness, saying, “Playing together. Trusting the guy next to you. Trusting the edge is going to be set. Taking the double teams off the D-linemen. Triggering downhill. Reading your keys well. Just trusting what you see and playing 150 miles per hour. If you mess up and shoot the wrong gap at that speed, somebody will come and make you right because we’re flying to the ball real well right now.”
But in Peppers’ two seasons, the defense has leaned on one wrinkle that perfectly encompasses this controlled chaos.
When New England expects a run, they’ll often deploy a three-safety nickel defense and essentially turn a five-man front into a six-man front by blitzing a safety, typically Peppers, from near the line of scrimmage. This forces backs to speed up decision-making and suffocates cutback lanes against outside zone runs. This tactic is responsible for nearly all of Peppers and Jennings’ tackles for loss or no gain and the reason each, along with Kyle Dugger, ranks top-5 in the metric at their respective position. Bill Belichick highlighted his top safeties on Monday, calling them “two of our best players and two of the better players in the league at that position.”
New England’s run defense will need its best effort of the season this week against an explosive Steelers backfield. Najee Harris could be ruled out for Thursday night, but you can bet the Patriots will prepare for him to play. Whether or not Harris is in the lineup, Jaylen Warren will be a tough test after playing like the league’s best runner since Week 9.
When asked what makes Warren and Harris such a dynamic duo, Peppers noted how both “run extremely hard” and “have a great vision.” The safety also touched on what makes them different, saying “Najee [Harris] is a bigger back, height-wise, and their running styles are kind of different, but they both pose great threats. I think [Jaylen Warren]…he runs really hard behind his pads. He’s a good low to the ground [runner].”
As Peppers describes, Warren’s low center of gravity and physical running style make him extremely tough to bring down. He’s also a creative runner who can manipulate defenders and responds quickly to disruption. While Warren is a threat to hit any gap, most of his carries hit downhill and between the tackles.
Harris’s size is handy in a phone booth, and like Warren, he has exceptional contact balance and can churn out yards after contact. But his bread and butter is hitting the edge and exploiting his rare speed in space.
The Patriots’ discipline and sound tackling should be enough to contain the Steelers’ rushing attack, especially with Warren possibly entering a late-season dip. But you can never count out a Mike Tomlin-coached team. The squad will also be fighting for pride after last week’s letdown, and there’s no better way to do that than trying to punch a top-run defense in the mouth.
This should be a fun battle of wills in a game short on high-powered matchups.
Don’t Let T.J. Watt Wreck the Game
Speaking of high-powered, early December has not been kind to Michael Onwenu. After squaring off against NFL sack leader Khalil Mack on Sunday, the guard-turned-tackle will face runner-up T.J. Watt, who is once again playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Watt is a game-wrecker in the truest sense. He’s well-regarded for his explosive and nuanced pass-rushing, but he also has a Ninkovichian knack for getting his hands on the ball.
New England’s game plan will certainly revolve around avoiding Watt at all costs, but as we saw last week, you can’t silence generational talent. Mack had a field day against the Patriots’ front, contributing to Onwenu’s worst performance since moving to tackle in Week 7.
He held up well against Mack’s more straightforward rush plans, but the edge rusher gave him trouble when chaining moves together.
Onwenu was late out of his stance on Mack’s sack against him, but he got turned around on a spin move and wound up on the ground when Mack feigned inside before redirecting ripping around the corner.
Watt presents a similar arsenal of moves powered by relentless effort but brings even more speed and bend.
This will be another difficult matchup for the 350-lb Onwenu. His only real challenges this season have been against Mack and Jaelan Phillips, whose switched-up rushing style also gave him problems.
With Onwenu hitting free agency this offseason, this performance significantly influences how his second contract could be structured. If he can’t keep up with Watt, this could be his last few weeks as a full-time edge protector. But if Onwenu bounces back from a tough Chargers game, he’ll have a strong case to be paid like an offensive tackle and make himself a pretty penny.
Losing Rhamondre Stevenson was the latest in a CVS receipt of devastating blows to the Patriots’ 2023 roster. After a slow start to the season, Stevenson had been one of the league’s best backs since Week 6 despite consistently inconsistent offensive line play. Even in his brief appearance against the Chargers, Stevenson showed his elusiveness and dynamic running with little room to operate on most carries.
David Andrews had a lot of praise for New England’s top back this week, saying, “I love playing with Rhamondre. He’s tough. He does a lot of things. He’s explosive, he’s tough. Look at LeGarrette Blount – he runs like that at times.”
But with Stevenson likely out for the season, Ezekiel Elliott now becomes RB1 on the depth chart. Elliott hasn’t slipped tackles as frequently as his backfield mate, but he brings hard-nosed running to an offense that would rather win time of possession with an inexperienced quarterback.
When asked about Elliott, Andrews also touched on the back’s physicality, toughness, vision, and quickness, noting how his running style inspires blockers. “If a guy’s falling off, just keep finishing, keep driving him, make him try to arm tackle [Elliott],” Andrews said, “Because if you get [Elliott] going, he’s gonna gain yards.”
Luckily, Elliott is healthy and ready for the challenge, telling reporters on Monday he feels good after being listened with a thigh before the Chargers game, saying, “It’s something I kind of felt after last week, but I didn’t really feel it at all [on Sunday].” His play backed up these comments, as he turned nothing into something several times against the Chargers.
Elliott was better than his 3.1-yard average suggests. He was often met at or behind the line of scrimmage by untouched or poorly blocked defenders but managed to find space, create it when it wasn’t initially there, and churn out positive gains.
Elliott’s efforts were admirable, but blocking needs to improve this week regardless of the opponent. But against a Steelers defense rejuvenated by Cameron Heyward’s return in Week 9, the run game must execute at the highest level this season.
Pittsburgh’s blitz-heavy front will test New England’s communication and ability to adjust to shifting pictures post-snap. Like New England, their aggressiveness can lead to missed tackles, but the defense does a great job rallying to the ball and quickly shutting down run lanes.
Last season, the Patriots attacked the Steelers’ four-man fronts with gap concepts featuring pullers and outside zone or pin-pull behind Trent Brown. They also ran for big gains against light fronts in pass situations.
Things will be more challenging on Thursday with T.J. Watt and rookie Keeanu Benton, who ranks 2nd among rookie interior defensive linemen in run stops, now in the lineup. But as Zappe goes through the struggles of a young quarterback with minimal help from his receiving corps, moving the ball on the ground could be the only hope for New England to snap its five-game losing streak,