In the passing game, what matters most is match-ups. The Patriots will be playing the Steelers, who may or may not have an extra wrinkle in their defense planned for the Patriots. The Patriots offense utilizes formation, motions, and personnel to get the opposing defense to tip their hand and tell QB Tom Brady what the defense is preparing to do. Brady’s ability to process what the defense tells him and identify the best match-up before snapping the ball is why he’s able to get the ball out faster than most QBs in the NFL.
The two biggest chess pieces for the Patriots are their two receiving backs, James White and Dion Lewis. Both players are capable of lining up anywhere in the formation, whether it’s out of the backfield, in the slot, or out wide. Brady may even motion one or both of them from one spot to another to see how the Steelers defense reacts pre-snap. In the past, the Patriots would always attack LB coverage because defenses had to focus in on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman over the middle of the field, leaving the boundary open for a RB to nickel and dime them like Dion Lewis did in 2015.
The first thing to note will be personnel. Will the Steelers treat Lewis and/or White as a receiver or a running back? If the Steelers see them as a receiver, they will likely counter with a dime defense against the Patriots 3 WR (11) personnel grouping. If the Steelers put an extra defensive back on the field, the Patriots need to counter with a run and hand the ball off to Lewis or White. If the Steelers match 11 with nickel, that likely means a LB will be covering Lewis/White and that’s a match-up the Patriots like.
One way to also create a match-up is use the formation to try to isolate White or Lewis on a linebacker away from the rest of the Steelers coverage. We’ll see plays where White or Lewis will line up or motion out wide to see how the Steelers defense reacts. If a linebacker walks out or follows the motion, it’s likely a tip off of man coverage and once again, that’s a match-up the Patriots are going to attack. If the Steelers have a DB follow him, it’s likely zone and Brady probably looks elsewhere since there will be a likely mismatch somewhere else on the field, especially if it’s nickel personnel. In the Patriots Week 7 win, the Patriots attacked the middle of the field with crossing routes that caused LB Lawrence Timmons to be matched up on Julian Edelman. That’s another match-up the Patriots go after.
The Patriots offensive coaching staff is going to need to come up with a good game plan to fend off a red-hot Steelers team in Foxboro. The Patriots best two chess pieces are their top two receiving backs. Using them in the pre-snap phase will help set the Patriots up to attack favorable match-ups against linebackers or protect against a potential blitz. While I list Edelman as the Patriots X-Factor on offense, White and Lewis both have the chance to make equally as strong an impact due to their abilities as a receiver. The Patriots will also have to be able to run the ball against the Steelers where they can utilize play-action and keep the down and distance short so the Steelers can’t sit on wheel routes. If White and/or Lewis has a big game on Sunday, the Patriots will come away with a win and a trip to Houston in order to try to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 years.