Tom Brady’s passing chart in Week 15 saw the Patriots’ quarterback return to form in the intermediate and deep portions of the field. Last week, the Dolphins held Brady to an astounding 3-12 for 87 yards, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 17.7 on passes of 10-plus yards.
This week, in large part due to the return of Rob Gronkowski, Brady was in much better form completing five of his 11 attempts on passes of 10-plus yards for 165 yards and a passer rating of 92.1.
The Steelers’ pass rush got after Brady pressuring the 40-year-old quarterback on 37.8% of his drop-backs, and Brady struggled under pressure with a completion percentage of just 50%, and he threw an interception.
Brady has been otherworldly when handling pressure this season, with a league-leading 98.3 passer rating when under pressure in 2017, which is higher than all but eight other quarterbacks overall this season.
However, over the last four weeks, that number has dropped to 68.9 as Brady has begun to show that he is indeed human when opposing team’s get into the Patriots’ backfield.
Finally, Brady’s time to throw in Pittsburgh was on the higher side of the spectrum for him at 2.72 seconds, bringing his season average to 2.62 seconds, which ranks 11th among 28 qualified quarterbacks.
The Patriots’ offensive line continues to struggle to protect Tom Brady, although the unit was able to keep him clean on the final two drives of the game, including the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
Overall, the Steelers pressured Brady on 37.8% of his drop-backs, and that comes on the heels of the Dolphins pressuring him on 35.6% of passing plays in Week 14. The lack of confidence that Brady has in his offensive line is dwindling, and you can see it in how he has approached standing in the pocket in recent weeks.
On an individual level, the season has taken a turn for the worst for second-year guard Joe Thuney. In Thuney’s defense, he was tasked with some difficult assignments over the last two weeks drawing potential All-Pro’s in Casey Heyward and Ndamukong Suh, but the five total pressures tie for the most any Pats offensive lineman has allowed in a game this season.
Over the last three weeks, Thuney has allowed four sacks and 11 total pressures in pass protection. In the first 12 weeks, Thuney had only allowed one sack and 23 total pressures.
His counterpart on the right side, Shaq Mason, who allowed a team-high two quarterback hits in Week 15 has also begun to struggle in pass protection.
If the Patriots’ offensive line is going to turn things around, they’ll need to get better production out of their starting guards.
Nobody can shut down Rob Gronkowski, but this season, in particular, he has become an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses out of the slot. Against the Steelers, 139 of Gronk’s career-high 168 receiving yards came out of the slot, including all three of his catches on the Patriots’ game-winning drive.
In 2017, Gronk is averaging 2.54 yards per route run out of the slot, which leads all tight ends.
Lastly, wide receiver Danny Amendola saw an interesting change of usage against the Steelers. Amendola only lined up in the slot on 63% of his routes in Week 15, by far his lowest rate of the season, and well below his season average of 83.2%.
With Gronk back in the mix, the middle of the field was again in play for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense.
PASS RUSH/RUN STOPS
If you’re looking for silver linings from a shaky performance by the Patriots’ defense, look no further than a rejuvenated pass rush, led by the return of Trey Flowers.
The Patriots pass rush pressured Ben Roethlisberger on 47.1% of his drop-backs, which was a season-high for a unit that has struggled mightily to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
In his return, Trey Flowers picked up right where he left off before his injury leading the team with seven total pressures and two quarterback hits to go along with one of two sacks of Roethlisberger. Flowers’ return and immediate impact despite playing injured is a great sign for a Patriots front seven that desperately needed a spark.
In all, Flowers has 23 quarterback hits on the season, which is tied for seventh in the NFL through 15 weeks, and he has only played in 12 games.
The Patriots’ pass rush may be among the league’s worst in terms of pressure rate, but Trey Flowers is having an outstanding season by all accounts.
The Patriots’ run defense was exposed once again by one of the premier running backs in the game in Le’Veon Bell as the Steelers racked up 143 yards on the ground. However, two defensive tackles along the Patriots’ defensive line had notable performances stopping the run.
First, Malcom Brown continues to be a run stopping force tallying six run stops in Week 15. Over the last four weeks, Brown has 13 run stops, which ranks second among interior defensive lineman in that span.
Second, journeyman Ricky Jean Francois made a significant impact in just 20 snaps as he attempts to fill Alan Branch’s role as a run-stuffing defensive lineman. Francois combined to make six tackles overall, three of which qualify as run stops, and one of which that was behind the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots run defense continues to be a weak point, but Brown and Francois could be significant parts of a turnaround in that facet of the game if it ever occurs.
The Patriots cornerback group had an eventful day against the Steelers, and not always in a good way. First, the Patriots opted to go with the bigger-bodied Eric Rowe in the slot against the Steelers’ Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate JuJu Smith-Schuster.
At 6-1, 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster would have been a size mismatch for breakout star Jonathan Jones and Rowe is now in his third game back from injury as he attempts to carve out a role again in the Patriots’ secondary.
A large chunk of the 106 yards Rowe allowed in coverage came on Smith-Schuster’s 69-yard catch and run on the final drive of the game, but Rowe also gave up a touchdown to Eli Rogers earlier in the game and wasn’t at his best on Sunday.
In all, Roethlisberger went 13-17 for 210 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 132.0 when targeting the Patriots’ cornerback trio of Gilmore, Butler, and Rowe.
In fact, if it weren't for Eric Rowe’s deflected pass that led to an interception to seal the victory for the Patriots, Roethlisberger would have had a near-perfect 156.5 rating when targeting the Pats’ cornerbacks, and all of that came without Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown for the vast majority of the game.
If you’re looking for a bright spot in the Patriots’ pass coverage, look no further than safety Patrick Chung. Chung is an unsung hero of this defense playing a variety of different roles both in coverage and against the run.
Against the Steelers, he allowed just three receptions for 15 yards and had a beautiful pass breakup on a pass attempt to tight end Jesse James.
Over the last two weeks, Chung has been by far the Patriots’ pass defensive back in coverage, allowing just a 74.3 passer rating into his coverage and has a pass breakup in each of the last two games.
Finally, last week it was Elandon Roberts that got hung out to dry by the Patriots’ coaching staff covering Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, and this week it was Trey Flowers.
Flowers, for some reason, was lined up in man coverage on a three pass plays against Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, and Roethlisberger rightfully so went after the Patriots’ defensive end racking up 30 yards on three completions in those situations.
(h/t Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)