Over the last two weeks, the Patriots offense has run significantly fewer plays than their previous season average. Last week, the Patriots ran their fewest plays in a game this season in Miami with just 55 offensive plays, and this week, in Pittsburgh, they rank the second-fewest at 56.
The reason behind the lack of possession for the Pats has been the team's struggles on third down on both sides of the ball. The Patriots offense went 0-11 on third down last week, and this week it was the defenses turn as they allowed the Steelers to convert ten of 16 third-down plays.
With that said, there are some interesting trends to look at on offense moving forward.
First, the battle for the starting right tackle job now that starter Marcus Cannon is on IR has been won so far by Cameron Fleming. Against the Steelers, Fleming played 46 of the Patriots’ 60 (76.7%) snaps at right tackle after playing 100% of the snaps in that spot last week.
Waddle did see the field for a time in Pittsburgh logging 14 snaps, but Fleming has been getting the vast majority of the playing time.
In the backfield, running back Dion Lewis played a season-high 33 snaps. The increase in playing time for Lewis had a lot to do with Rex Burkhead’s knee injury, but it’s also clear that Lewis is the team’s best running back. It would seem that Lewis’ playing time and offensive touches could see a considerable increase in the playoffs.
As for newcomer Kenny Britt, the wide receiver logged just two snaps in his Patriots debut but did get on the stat sheet with a 7-yard reception in the second quarter.
Lastly, special teams ace Matthew Slater played three snaps on offense against the Steelers. Slater appeared to have a blocking role on a few screen attempts by the Patriots offense.
Defensively, the Patriots struggled giving up over 6.5 yards per play and allowed the Steelers to convert on 66% of third downs as stated earlier.
Even without Antonio Brown for most of the game, the Steelers still possess a high-powered offense, and the Patriots were able to hold it together with duct tape it seemed on the defensive side of the ball.
The most notable difference with the Patriots defense from a playing time perspective was the usage of cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones. Jones, has impressed this season as one of the Patriots’ breakout players, but the big-bodied Rowe drew the assignment against Steelers slot wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
This was Rowe’s third game back from injury in Week 15 and his increased playing time may be a sign that he’s healthy.
Along with Rowe, veteran linebacker David Harris back in the lineup after being inactive last week in Miami, and played 31 snaps as apart of the Patriots’ plan to slow down the Steelers’ running game.
Similarly, journeyman Ricky Jean Francois has found himself back on the Patriots’ roster and played 20 snaps in the absence of Alan Branch. Francois played a terrific game combining to make six tackles and added a tackle for loss against the Steelers.
With Branch sidelined due to a knee injury and Francois’ breakout performance in Week 15, you’d expect him to stick around in New England for at least the last two weeks of the regular season.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Trey Flowers played 64 of the 67 possible snaps on defense in his return from a rib injury. Flowers is arguably the most important player on the Patriots defense and his playing time and health will be of the utmost importance down the stretch.