On Sunday, the New England Patriots took on a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that was forced to play without its starting quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger missed the contest due to injury. Instead, the Patriots defense had to face Landry Jones, who made only the third start of his three-year NFL career.
Naturally, this made the task of defending Pittsburgh’s myriad of offensive weapons an easier one. However, it did not answer the question of how exactly to defend the Steelers’ offense. Throwing exotic blitzes at the young quarterback? Concentrating efforts to take away Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell? Forcing Jones to make the tough throws?
As it turned out, the Patriots employed an easier plan – albeit one not that attractive: take away the deep throw and force Jones to string together multiple successful short- and intermediate passes. New England counted on Jones not consistently being able to do that and as the result shows, the plan worked.
1) 1-10-PIT 25 (15:00) (Shotgun) L.Jones pass short left to A.Brown to PIT 28 for 3 yards (P.Chung).
The defense made its intentions shown on the very first snap of the game. The Steelers aligned in an empty 12-personnel set with running back Le’Veon Bell (#26) split out wide on the strong side of the formation. New England countered with what initially appeared to be a cover 2 off-man look with Devin McCourty (#32) and Patrick Chung (#23) as the two deep safeties:
However, right before the snap, Chung moves closer to the line of scrimmage leaving McCourty as the single high safety. Coupled with the 4-3 linebackers – strong to weak: Rob Ninkovich (#50), Dont’a Hightower (#54), Jamie Collins (#91) – dropping back into coverage, Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones (#3) was faced with the following look at the top of his drop-back:
New England rushed four but given the fact that only one true defensive tackle was on the field – Alan Branch (#97) – Jones had to figure out which players would eventually attack the pocket or drop back (Collins, for example, faked a blitz at the snap). Consequently, the Steelers had a number’s advantage along the line of scrimmage. However, the Patriots were okay with that as relying on the rush was no key component of the game plan.
Instead, the team used disguised coverages and placing multiple defenders into the underneath zones to make Jones play the game New England wanted him to play. The assumed goals of this strategy were a) preventing the big play by playing off-man, b) forcing Jones into making smart decisions and c) baiting him into making the easy throw that gains minimal yardage.
On the first play of scrimmage, this plan was already in full effect. The Patriots dropped seven defenders to crowd the intermediate zones and Jones simply took what New England gave him: a quick pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown (#84), who ran a short in-route, for a gain of three yards.
2) 3-13-NE 24 (4:53) (Shotgun) L.Jones pass incomplete deep right to A.Brown.
The Patriots did not shy away from blitzing Jones but did so only on a few occasions – predominately in the first half – as it naturally created more space in the defensive backfield. Mostly, the team did therefore rely on four- and three-man rushes to put stress the pass protection but more importantly the quarterback’s ability to dissect coverages and make sound decisions.
One such play came late in the second quarter, with the Patriots up 14-7 and Pittsburgh’s offense in the red zone. In a 3rd and 13 situation, New England’s defense used a cover 3 zone look with three deep safeties lining up near the down marker:
With only three players rushing the passer (despite Collins and Hightower indicating blitz), Jones was faced with eight defenders covering the zones. While the pressure did not reach him and he had time to go through his progressions, the quarterback found nobody open to throw the ball to as New England took advantage of having more players in coverage:
With the receiving options covered, the defense was able to put pressure on Jones without actually putting pressure on Jones. Despite the offensive line being able to hold the rushers at bay, his internal playclock made him release the ball almost four seconds after the snap. Jones passed in the direction of Brown, who was double covered by Malcolm Butler (#21) and Devin McCourty (#32).
The Patriots’ plan of taking away the deep ball – even more important in 3rd and long situations like this one – worked. The Steelers were forced to attack the underneath areas most of the time, creating favorable down and distances for the defense. While such a tactic would likely not have been used against Roethlisberger, who is more patient a passer and a bigger threat to run the ball, it did prove to be successful against Jones.
Sacrificing the pass rush to drop additional players into coverage was a key part of that as it forced Jones to play a mentally smart and calm game. At times, he was able to do that, but overall New England’s gamble paid off: the young quarterback was unable to consistently string together successful plays to keep up with the Patriots’ offense (despite the unit playing a sloppy game at times).
It might not have been exciting to watch the pass rushers get stifled time and again – and, yes, they should have won the occasional one-on-one matchup – but the plan worked. And that’s all that matters.