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6 observations from the Patriots 17-10 loss to the Steelers

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Instant analysis from week 15!

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The New England Patriots lost 17-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 15 as New England’s struggles on the road continued. Here’s what we learned from the game.

The Patriots run defense is horrifying

Over the past three weeks, the Patriots run defense has allowed 429 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on 55 carries. That’s a ghastly 7.80 yards per carry and it’s obviously the biggest flaw of the Patriots defense.

The linebackers are slow to fill the gaps and the defensive line does a bad job of containing the backs in the backfield and stretching the play out to the sideline. There are huge cutback lanes and plenty of open field in the second level.

So it’s more eye-rolling than anything to highlight that run-stuffing defensive tackle Danny Shelton has been a healthy scratch over the past three weeks. Over the previous 11 games with Shelton, teams averaged 4.43 yards per carry. Of course Shelton isn’t responsible for that entire difference in production, but he’s definitely a component of it.

Teams are going to have success running the ball because there isn’t a defensive tackle rotation without Shelton. Adam Butler is a solid sub-package pass rushing defensive tackle, but he’s not a stout run defender in the middle. That leaves the great Lawrence Guy and the suddenly-forgettable Malcom Brown as the only two run stuffers on game day.

This is a personnel problem that won’t be fixed this year. It’s going to be a problem.

The Patriots offense was lousy

There’s no caveat: when you only score 10 points, you did a bad job. Tom Brady and company were not good.

Sure, Brady completed 69.4% of his passes for 279 yards and a touchdown, but he had an enormous red zone interception that was absolutely inexcusable. He threw off his backfoot in traffic. This happens every year. It’s happened more this year than in other years.

Julian Edelman had a fine day with 7 catches for 90 yards on 11 targets, but he had some costly drops. Chris Hogan had the big 63-yard touchdown catch, but only had 5 yards for the rest of the day.

James White has disappeared from the offense (7 touches for 37 yards) with the return of Rex Burkhead (7 touches for 43 yards) and development of Sony Michel (13 carries for 59 yards). Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were targeted a combined 7 times for a mere 3 catches and 40 yards.

The offensive line were called for penalty after penalty that forced the offense into long-distance situations on a regular basis.

This was a bad day for everyone on offense.

Penalties, penalties, penalties

The Patriots were flagged a season-high 14 times for 106 yards. Three of the Patriots four worst days of penalties have come after the bye week (11 for 105 against the New York Jets and 7 for 60 against the Minnesota Vikings). These are issues that should have been resolved in the first quarter of the season and not rearing their head down the stretch.

New England has played some incredibly sloppy football this year.

They still haven’t clinched a playoff spot and will likely play on wild card weekend

The Patriots couldn’t take advantage of the Miami Dolphins’ loss to the Minnesota Vikings and need to win either of their next two games to clinch the AFC East. What’s more concerning is that the Houston Texans won on Saturday, meaning that the Patriots are the #3 seed in the AFC and are unlikely to jump back into the top two spots.

This could be the first time since 2009 that the Patriots will have to play on Wild Card Weekend, ending the longest streak of bye weeks in NFL history. The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers won’t lose both their remaining games, while the Texans go on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles and host the Jacksonville Jaguars.

There’s still a chance the Patriots could climb back into a bye week. It’s just incredibly unlikely.

Problem: The Patriots continue to disappoint on the road

A huge issue with being the third seed is that the Patriots would have to play on the road in the divisional round- and they’ve been awful on the road. The New England Patriots finish the season with a 3-5 road record, the third-worst road performance of the Bill Belichick era- ahead of only 2000 and 2009 when they went 2-6.

In these games, the Patriots offense produced 10 points three times- against the Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, and now the Steelers. No other Bill Belichick team has been held to 10 or fewer points more than twice. To restate: even the 2000 Patriots were limited to 10 or fewer points only twice.

The Patriots have allowed an average of 24 points per game, giving up 31 points or more on four occasions. Again, not good.

The Patriots are going to have to play on the road in the playoffs. This story probably won’t have a happy ending.

This Patriots team has no identity

What do we know about this 2018 Patriots team? They’re an above-average offense (but much worse than their usual selves) with an average defense. James White leads the team with 1,053 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, but he has only gained 62 yards over the past two games combined and hasn’t scored since week 9.

Rob Gronkowski has 658 receiving yards, but it’s clear that he’s not the same player anymore. Julian Edelman has 794 yards from scrimmage in his 10 games on the year. Josh Gordon has 720 yards. Sony Michel has 815 yards in 11 games. Chris Hogan has 468 yards and Cordarrelle Patterson has 406 yards.

I list these figures because there’s obvious talent on this roster, but there hasn’t been any consistency. This isn’t a run-first team. There isn’t a dominant force in the passing game. They’re good enough to produce points, but there isn’t the same confidence that the offense is going to erupt at any point.

And then the defense has had solid production from the secondary- particularly the cornerbacks- but the defensive front seven has been terrible. Other than Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy, and Kyle Van Noy to an extent, there isn’t a player in the defensive front seven that I would expect to produce a big play at a crucial moment. So no matter how good the secondary is playing, if there isn’t complementary football up front, someone will eventually get open.

The 2017 Patriots was led by MVP Tom Brady, with the team adding star power like Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks over the offseason. The 2016 Patriots was redemption for Brady’s suspension. The 2015 Patriots were a walking Pyrrhic victory as injuries each successive week finally broke the team against the powerful Broncos defense. The 2014 Patriots had a swaggering defense led by Darrelle Revis. The 2013 Patriots overcame so many obstacles and never gave up.

What is the identity of this 2018 Patriots team? If we don’t know it now, will we know it by the end of the year?

New England hosts the Buffalo Bills in week 16 and then the New York Jets in week 17. Let’s hope they can get to 11-5.

Pats Pulpit Live Postgame Show: Week 15

Welcome to the Pats Pulpit Live Postgame Show! After a tough loss on the road in Pittsburgh, host Brian Phillips breaks down what we just witnessed.

Posted by Pats Pulpit: For New England Patriots News on Sunday, December 16, 2018