The New England Patriots will have to turn the page quickly coming off a shocking defeat against the Miami Dolphins. On Sunday, after all, they will face a familiar but highly potent foe: the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are once again in the postseason picture but trying to get some momentum back after losing three games in a row. The Patriots will try to extend the Steelers’ losing streak to four in order to stay on course for a first-round playoff bye.
And if the past is any indication, New England should be favored to do this: the Patriots have won five straight versus the Steelers. The team’s offense in particular has had tremendous and consistent success when facing the current AFC North leaders the last few years. Every season is different, however, and New England knows that it cannot take the Steelers defense lightly just because of what happened during the past few meetings.
Head coach Bill Belichick made this clear during his recent press meetings. “This will be a big challenge for us on the road against a good football team that does a lot of things well,” he said about his squad’s upcoming opponent. How exactly will this challenge look like? Durning a conference call on Tuesday, Belichick outlined many of the things the Steelers defense does well — and there are a lot of them.
“They’re a very disruptive team. They have a real good scheme, a lot of pressures so a lot of fumbles and strip sacks,” Belichick said about the group coordinated by Keith Butler, now in his fourth year on the job. But while Butler’s unit is disruptive and leads the league with 45 sacks, the overall results have not always been perfect this year: Pittsburgh ranks just 18th in the league with an average of 23.0 points surrendered per game.
However, Belichick knows that neither this number nor the past success his team has had against Butler’s defenses — New England won all four of the meetings by an average margin of 10 points — will be important on Sunday. All that matters is that his players perform well. “It’s going to, again, take good team execution offensively up front from our skill players and just everybody working together to do a good job in all of those areas,” Belichick said.
After all, the Steelers’ strengths extend beyond their disruptiveness. “They pursue very well so they get plays from behind where they knock the ball out,” Belichick said. “They’ve used multiple coverages so man, zone, blitz zone, some blitz man, different combinations of split and post-safety coverages. [...] They’re very multiple on defense and probably one of the most multiple teams we’ve seen all year.”
One part of this multiplicity is the versatility of the front seven and the depth and quality the unit has. “The inside guys are good; they do a real good job of creating penetration and forcing the quarterback back to the edge rushers,” Belichick said when talking about the Steelers’ front-line defenders. “The edge rushers do a good job of forcing the quarterback up into the inside part of the pass rush.”
“Their blitzes create a lot of movement and so forth,” he continued. “They do a good job of everything. I don’t know what the exact sack breakdown is, but it’s not like one guy has 20 sacks. There’s a lot of people on that defense that have hit the quarterback. There’s a lot of times that the guy who hits the quarterback gets him because somebody else penetrated and somebody else created an opening for them.”
The Patriots, who surrendered two sacks against the Dolphins on Sunday, need to be ready for a defense that generates 3.5 sacks per contest (compared to Miami’s 1.7 entering the game) — but one that only took down quarterback Tom Brady 1.5 times per game over the course of Butler’s tenure as defensive coordinator. If New England can find similar success against T.J. Watt, Javon Hargrave, and company, they should be in a good position to extend their win streak over Pittsburgh to six straight.