Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots: Ten Keys to Week 9

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is hoping his team’s second-ranked pass defense can help Pittsburgh win their second straight game against New England. (Photo: US Presswire)

NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones

In their final game before their week-ten bye, the New England Patriots will attempt to exact revenge on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the team’s 25-17 loss in the 2011 season, the last team the two organizations met on the field. Pittsburgh is currently 2-5 and coming off of an unsuccessful road trip to Oakland, but they are nonetheless a team with an outstanding coaching staff, a franchise quarterback, and the league’s second-ranked pass defense, with familiar faces LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu still among the best in the league at their respective positions. Read on for ten keys to this afternoon’s game.

1. Will New England continue to be aggressive in rushing the quarterback this week?

Last week, the Patriots were able to emerge with a victory over the Dolphins largely because of their willingness and ability to blitz effectively, creating pressure against an inefficient offensive line in what was ultimately a six-sack performance. While 2.5 of the sacks came via defensive ends Chandler Jones (1.5) and Rob Ninkovich, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Patriots’ defensive strategy involved numerous linebacker and cornerback blitzes, with linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Dane Fletcher and cornerback Logan Ryan all taking down Ryan Tannehill in the backfield.

This week, the Patriots have another appealing opportunity to increase their sack totals against a Steelers offense which has already yielded twenty-seven sacks on the season, a figure which is tied with Seattle for the seventh-worst total in the league. Continuing to aggressively attack Pittsburgh’s offense is also a strategy which is supported by Ben Roethlisberger’s statistics against the blitz this season: the quarterback’s completion percentage drops eleven points against additional rushers versus his figure against four or fewer rushers, with his yards per attempt dropping by 0.7 as well.

Part of this may be because of his relatively slow reads, a weakness which he typically masks by scrambling in order to break containment and extend plays long enough to find an open option. The overall chemistry of Pittsburgh’s offensive line is also lacking due to constant reshufflings, which will continue this week due to right guard David DeCastro’s ankle injury; Pittsburgh’s top lineman will be replaced by Guy Whimper. This will be the Steelers’ fourth offensive line configuration of the season.

2. Can the Patriots’ secondary take away top Steelers receiver Antonio Brown?

The loss of Mike Wallace to Miami in free agency was considered a substantial blow to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver corps this past offseason, a sentiment which has been justified to some extent by the team’s offensive struggles. However, Wallace’s absence has also been mitigated by fellow receiver Antonio Brown’s emergence as a high-percentage number-one receiver. Through seven games, Brown has caught 56/69 targets, an 81.2% catch percentage which ranks second in the league thus far behind only Nate Burleson’s 82.6% figure.

That statistic is somewhat inflated due to the fact that Brown has made almost all of his catches on short-to-intermediate routes over the middle, with plenty of screens also having been called by offensive coordinator Todd Haley; only nine of Brown’s 56 receptions have come on outside throws, excluding the nine outside screens he’s caught thus far. In order to create opportunities for Brown, Haley has asked him to line up at various different positions in the offensive formation, both on the outside and in the slot. It appears unlikely that cornerback Aqib Talib will return from his hip injury this week, but because of the overall effectiveness of New England’s other cornerbacks, those being projected starters Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington, the team has three attractive options to work with.

When Brown is aligned in the slot, he may be matched up against Arrington, who has allowed a 29/49 (59.2%), 323-yard, three-touchdown, one-interception line on the season with seven passes defensed, a respectable set which would be more impressive if not for his ineffectiveness as a boundary defender. It is possible, though, that Arrington will also draw plenty of coverage against Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh’s second option and a player the Patriots tried to pry from the Steelers this past offseason during restricted free agency.

3. Who will most frequently be responsible for covering tight end Heath Miller?

A 2011 contest in which Heath Miller caught seven-of-nine targets for eighty-five yards against the Patriots has been in the news this week, with head coach Bill Belichick appearing grateful for having been reminded about the statistic, noting that it had slipped his mind. That may reflect a lack of preoccupation with Miller’s potential impact on the game, but the Patriots have struggled to prevent opposing tight ends from becoming high-percentage options this season, most notably Tony Gonzalez but also including the likes of Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert, with the primary cause appearing to be strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s lack of coverage acumen as a consequence of his oversized frame.

Ideally, Hightower would be able to handle the older, less-explosive Miller, but this year’s performances have demonstrated that Hightower may not be suited to that role moving forwards. Regardless, it seems as though New England’s primary means of handling an opponent’s tight end is to assign Hightower in coverage, so that will likely be the team’s first option in coverage.

Should Hightower struggle, it’s possible that the Patriots could let another linebacker, perhaps athletic rookie Jamie Collins, try their hand at covering Miller. Collins has seen his role increase slightly following Jerod Mayo’s injury, playing a combined forty snaps over the past two games. He has allowed completions on all four targets this season, but as a former safety with size and explosive movement skills, it may be beneficial to work him into the defense more thoroughly. Other notable approaches the Patriots have tried against opposing tight ends this season include assigning cornerback Logan Ryan (versus Tony Gonzalez) and free safety Devin McCourty (versus Charles Clay.)

4. How successful will Pittsburgh’s as-yet ineffective rushing attack be?

Through four games as a pro, Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell has sporadically shown signs that he can develop into an effective running back, but those performances have been tempered by highly inconsistent production despite a relatively consistent workload, with his yards-per-carry figure residing at 3.3, hardly an impressive total. The culprits for Bell’s underwhelming totals so far seem to be a combination of his indecisiveness, his vision, and poor play along the offensive line, but he has a chance to get back on track this week against a run defense which has been successfully targeted by every opponent this season.

Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was placed on injured reserve yesterday owing to a knee injury sustained against Cincinnati, but the team moved to acquire nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga from the Philadelphia Eagles at the trade deadline, relinquishing a fifth-round pick in exchange for Sopoaga and a sixth-round selection. Head coach Bill Belichick’s comments this week seemed to indicate that the 6’2”, 330-pounder would take the field this week, something that the team hopes will improve their run defense. Over 242 defensive snaps, Sopoaga has graded out as a slightly below-average player on Pro Football Focus, which would offer a considerable upgrade over the likes of Chris Jones and Joe Vellano.

As mentioned earlier, New England’s defensive line has also caught a break this week, as Pittsburgh’s star right guard, David DeCastro, has been ruled out with an ankle injury sustained last week. The Steelers are left with a miserable offensive line configuration of (from left to right) Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Fernando Velasco, Guy Whimper, and Marcus Gilbert.

5. How will the Patriots counter defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s blitzes?

Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s masterful defensive coordinator, has built his professional reputation through the zone blitz, a philosophy which deviated from the traditional “employ man coverage when you blitz” approach which preceded it. Last season, Pittsburgh rushed additional defenders on 40.2% of their plays, with the second-highest rate of five-man pass rushes in the league at 32.7%. The approach was fairly effective last time the two teams met in 2011, a game in which Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes but gained just 198 yards through the air, averaging 5.7 yards per throw and being sacked on three different occasions in a 25-17 Steelers victory.

Brady may well have similar difficulties this year, as he has underperformed against additional rushers this season, completing just 53.3% of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt on the 102 dropbacks in which he faced additional pass rushers. Part of this may have been because of an early lack of confidence and/or chemistry in his new receiving options, and part of it may be the increased effectiveness of those blitzes owing to an underperforming offensive line unit, with center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly appearing to be weak links.

In the past, the Patriots have attempted to spread out Pittsburgh’s defense in order to eliminate some of the pre-snap confusion. Another idea would be to run plenty of screens and draws in order to take advantage of LeBeau’s aggressive defensive calls. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers allowed a combined 7.8 yards per carry on draw plays over 2011 and 2012 combined, and ranked last in the league in defending shotgun runs in 2012.

6. Can the Patriots rectify their poor performance in third-down situations?

This was included in last week’s preview, described as one of the most important areas in which the Patriots needed to improve their production in order to continue winning games, but somehow New England was able to emerge from their contest versus Miami with a victory despite converting just two-of-ten third-down conversion attempts (although the team did convert in one fourth-down situation.) As a team, the Patriots have converted only 37/115 attempts on the season, a 32.2% rate which ranks well behind the 40.5% figure they’ve allowed their opponents to convert this season.

The culprits are the same as they’ve been all season: longer conversion attempts, poor playcalling, inaccurate passing, and a fair share of dropped passes from the receiving corps. At this point, it’s almost beyond comprehension how New England can be so successful despite consistently failing on this key down. With Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski finally healthy enough to play simultaneously, Brady should have two options he can look to on any given down for a key completion, but that wasn’t the case last week, with the two catching a combined five passes last week for 42 yards despite being targeted eleven times.

Additionally, the team has a highly-efficient running back in Stevan Ridley (more on him later), so in short-yardage situations, they should be doing a better job. The Steelers have a middling third-down defense, currently ranked 18th in the league while allowing a 38.1% conversion rate, so this is an opportunity for the Patriots to improve their performance in this area.

7. Will this be the week Stevan Ridley regains his role as the team’s workhorse?

Pittsburgh’s traditionally strong run defense, which ranked second in the league last year and has finished in the top ten every season since 2003, when they finished twelfth, has long been an integral part of the organization’s identity. However, the team has been dreadful against the run this season, with a combination of age and turnover resulting in a unit which ranks 27th in the league, allowing an average of 121.9 yards per game and is coming off of a performance in which they allowed the Raiders to accumulate 197 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That means there should be plenty of opportunities for New England to successfully run the football, which would help offset Pittsburgh’s exceptional pass defense.

The primary beneficiary of the Steelers’ inability to stop the run should be Stevan Ridley, who continues to show why he is New England’s most explosive option on the ground. Ridley has 56 carries over the past four games he’s appeared in, gaining 278 yards and four touchdowns on those attempts, which translates to an average of 4.96 yards per carry. Ridley’s 52% success rate also ranks as the fourth-highest figure among qualifying running backs, according to Football Outsiders.

Pittsburgh’s starting defensive line, which consists of left end Cameron Heyward, nose tackle Steve McLendon, and right end Brett Keisel, with Ziggy Hood rotating in at defensive end, is not among the strongest units in the league, so it would be a wise strategy for the Patriots to predicate their offensive gameplan on running the ball, specifically by running the ball with by far their most efficient running back, Stevan Ridley.

8. Does Cortez Allen have the physicality to limit Rob Gronkowski’s production?

In 2011, the last time New England and Pittsburgh played each other, the Steelers primarily attempted to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski with cornerback Cortez Allen, who was defending Gronkowski on six of his nine targets that game, allowing four catches and 44 yards of Gronkowski’s final 7-94-0 line, with free safety Ryan Mundy, who is now with the New York Giants, responsible for the coverage on the other three targets.

Therefore, it stands to reason that Allen is the most likely candidate for coverage responsibilities on Gronkowski in this afternoon’s matchup as well. Allen began the season as Pittsburgh’s starting left cornerback, but was forced from that game after just twenty-nine snaps due to an injury which caused him to miss the team’s next two games. When he returned at Minnesota in week four, he played on the right side, but following the Steelers’ bye week he was playing in the slot, possibly because he allowed five catches, 116 yards, and two touchdowns as a boundary defender in that loss.

Allen shouldn’t be taken lightly simply because his role has been decreasing this season, as he held opposing quarterbacks to a 45/77 (58.4%), 448-yard, one-touchdown, two-interception line last season, with his most effective work coming in the slot. At 6’1” and 196 pounds, the third-year player has above-average size for the position, but regardless this appears to be a matchup which the Patriots will attempt to exploit, especially considering the presence of Ike Taylor on the outside.

9. Do the Steelers have the cornerback depth to defend the Patriots’ receivers?

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has increasingly become more receptive to using his sub packages in recent years, but ranked atop the NFL last year in the percentage of plays he ran from a traditional four-defensive-back formation (63%.) As discussed earlier, that philosophy may need to be modified in order to fit Cortez Allen onto the field for coverage responsibilities against Rob Gronkowski. He would join Pittsburgh’s starting cornerbacks, Ike Taylor and William Gay, who should be assigned to Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola, respectively.

The Steelers aren’t necessarily committed to playing their cornerbacks on sides, so it makes sense for them to line up Gay, more of a combination inside/outside defender, on Amendola, while Taylor attempts to cover the bigger, more athletic Dobson. Gay has enjoyed a strong 2013 campaign after it appeared his career was nearing its conclusion, while Taylor is not playing up to his previous level. He is the eleventh-most frequently-targeted cornerback this season as a percentage of his coverage snaps, ranks 87th out of 107 qualifying candidates in yards per coverage snap allowed, and allows catches on the ninth-highest rate of coverage snaps. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, with a physical style of play and impressive top-end speed despite being thirty-three years old, he should present a difficult matchup for Dobson nonetheless, but is not the lockdown defender he was in years past.

Aside from the three cornerbacks previously mentioned, the Steelers have only used two additional defensive back reserves: Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden, both safeties. That may present an opportunity for New England to employ sets involving multiple receivers to take advantage of safety-on-receiver matchups.

10. Can right tackle Marcus Cannon protect the edge against LaMarr Woodley?

Sebastian Vollmer, who began the season as New England’s starting right tackle, was enjoying an exceptional season until it came to a premature end eighteen snaps into last week’s game against the Miami Dolphins via a broken leg which has already forced him onto injured reserve. His replacement, Marcus Cannon, was effective over 50 snaps at the position after a disappointing 72-snap performance at right guard versus New Orleans.

However, Cannon will draw a particularly difficult assignment this week, as he is tasked with protecting Tom Brady from highly-productive Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has rebounded from a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he recorded just four sacks. Through seven games, Woodley has already surpassed that total, with five sacks, five additional quarterback hits, and sixteen pressures, establishing himself as Pittsburgh’s most productive defender other than strong safety Troy Polamalu. If Woodley proves able to create consistent pressure, it will restrict the number of receiving options the Patriots can field simultaneously, as they will need to retain an additional back or tight end in pass protection to stop him.

On the other hand, a strong performance against a quality rusher such as Woodley would go a long way towards creating confidence in Cannon’s viability as a starter along the offensive line, potentially warranting further consideration for him as the team’s starting right guard in 2014 or as a valuable trade chip this offseason.

Final Prediction: Patriots 21, Steelers 17

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