Of the Patriots’ five road losses this season, perhaps none left onlookers more perplexed than the performance put forth at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh last Sunday.
Unlike in Jacksonville and Detroit, this loss contained no element of “September football”. This was not a “let down” game at the end of a six-game winning streak with a bye week looming. And it was not a shocking loss at the hands of a divisional foe by way of a miraculous, once-in-a-generation play in the game’s waning seconds.
At a time of the season where a team’s goal is to be hitting its stride and imposing an established identity upon its opponents, the Patriots put forth an apathetic, disconnected performance riddled with mistakes. Instead of an effort that provided answers, it only served to raise countless questions — one of which must be:
Why was Josh Gordon ignored?
Notice that the question doesn’t dispute the fact of whether or not the talented wide receiver who averages 18.0 yards per reception — a mark which, among pass catchers with at least 30 grabs ranks second only to Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson — was ignored in Sunday’s loss. He was neglected — and the tape shows it.
Gordon had tallied 34 catches on 51 targets for 550 yards and two touchdowns in six career games against Pittsburgh prior to Sunday’s contest, but was targeted just twice in the game — a season-low total — resulting in one catch for 19 yards a dropped pass on a third-and-six in the third quarter. These two targets came as the Patriots ran just 55 net plays from scrimmage in the loss — their lowest total since the Detroit debacle in September. Yet, despite the diminished opportunity, the trio of White, Edelman, and Gronkowski still surpassed the cumulative 22.53 target/game average that they entered the contest with.
Prior target/game averages | Week-15 targets
White: 8.23 | 7
Edelman: 8.1 | 11
Gronkowski: 6.2 | 5
Gordon: 6.6 | 2
Considering ten points were all the offense could muster with an AFC East title and a potential first round bye on the line on Sunday, Gordon’s lack of involvement was inexcusable for a multitude of reasons.
First among them was a simple issue of poor efficiency. In a game where opportunities were limited due to the small amount of snaps, the importance of each snap naturally became magnified. Yet, the Patriots not only remained determined to establish the ground game against the league’s 7th best run defense (DVOA) — a strategy that burned the clock and limited possessions while producing point-earning chunk plays at a far lower clip than passing — but they continued to ignore the offense’s most efficient pass-catching target outside of the red zone heading into week-15.
The Gordon neglect becomes even more puzzling when taking into account the fact that, schematically, Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t prioritize Gordon above any of the Patriots’ other offensive skill personnel. In fact, they dared the Patriots to beat them with throws to the outside. This has been a staple of Pittsburgh’s transformation to a Cover-1-based unit in 2018 — an effort spearheaded by defensive coordinator Keith Butler last offseason.
Cover-1 is a defensive concept designed to take away the middle of the field — including the deep seams that Patriots fans have grown accustomed to seeing Rob Gronkowski exploit over the years. With just one deep safety, a large amount of trust is placed on the unit’s two outside corners to maintain integrity, given the limited help over the top. You’ll also often see those corners utilizing “outside leverage” to funnel wide receivers back to the field side when the unit is playing zone coverage.
On Sunday, the Steelers stayed true to form, playing a ton of Cover-1 and daring the Patriots to throw to the perimeter.
After going back through each of Josh Gordon’s snaps, here’s how the Steelers chose to defend the man who torched them so often in the past:
Of Gordon’s 52 snaps:
- 33 came against some form of Cover-1 — man coverage with just one neutrally positioned safety deep over the top. The Patriots ran it 14 times, and threw it nine times.
- 13 came against either two-high safety looks (Cover-2), or against Cover-1 where the safety’s initial post-snap break was to Gordon’s side to provide help over the top. Of these, the Patriots ran it four times and passed nine.
- Gordon faced zone coverage on the remaining six snaps, four which were due to his alignment in the slot — a position he was not targeted from all game.
After Joe Haden guarded Gordon on the Patriots’ first offensive snap, Artie Burns was assigned to him on the Patriots 63-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan two plays later. Burns was one of the three defenders Gordon drew coverage from on the play, leaving Hogan wide open. He was subsequently benched on the following drive, and replaced by beatable veteran Coty Sensabaugh.
Aside from two fourth-quarter red zone snaps that saw him lined up in the slot, Sensabaugh was tasked with guarding Josh Gordon for the entire game. In total, the two squared up 46 times in the contest, including 30 of the 33 snaps where Pittsburgh decided Gordon could be adequately defended with a single cornerback left on an island with no safety help over the top.
Inexplicably, despite getting this match up 30 times, the Patriots only targeted Gordon twice.
Five of those 30 snaps came in the red zone.
On the failed 3rd&4 tunnel screen to Edelman -- you can't ask for a more advantageous red zone opportunity than having Josh Gordon one-on-one against Coty Sensabaugh with no help over the top. pic.twitter.com/5Y3two8ljJ— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) December 17, 2018
In terms of blame distribution, how much of this is on Tom Brady, and how much should allocated to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels?
Unfortunately, the answer is that it’s a bit of both. At times this season, Brady seems to be willing Rob Gronkowski back into a rhythm, and it has led to an increase in ill-advised decisions with the football. He’s also been leaning heavily on Julian Edelman — which, of course, isn’t anything new — but it has been at the behest of working the football to other productive targets like Gordon and Cordarrelle Patterson.
McDaniels — who gets a weekly dose of unwarranted criticism — is equally culpable with regard to Gordon’s neglect on Sunday. An over-commitment to the game plan and an unwillingness to take a few more risks down field with the unit’s most talented pass-catching weapon against a replacement-level cornerback has to go down as his biggest mistake of the season to this point.
As the Patriots host the Bills this coming Sunday, the rekindling of the chemistry built between Brady and Gordon through their first ten games together will be critical. A failure to do so could signal the makings of an earlier-than-anticipated conclusion to the team’s season in January.
Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_SB