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Patriots vs Steelers advanced stats: New England’s defense shined against Pittsburgh

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Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 33-3 opening win over Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots have started their 2019 regular season in style: after unveiling their sixth Super Bowl banner, the reigning champions blew out the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers with a final score of 33-3. New England dominated from start to finish, and looked terrific in all three phases of the game. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into the game and analyze some of the advanced statistics to come out of it.

Pass distribution

NFL Next Gen Stats

New England’s passing game looked very good against Pittsburgh, and it all started with quarterback Tom Brady. The 42-year-old was terrific and distributed the football well: he targeted seven different receivers and successfully attacked most levels of the field. What stands out in particular is his success throwing deep, as Brady completed three of his four attempts beyond 20 yards downfield for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Phillip Dorsett. He also was sharp in most other areas as well.

Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, had a tougher outing as the Patriots’ secondary made life hard for him and his receivers. While the 37-year-old did find some success in the short and intermediate areas of the field, New England took away the deep passing game throughout the night: of the fifteen passes he attempted beyond 10 yards, only four were completed. One of the incomplete attempts landed in the arms of Patriots safety Devin McCourty for an interception.

Offensive rush direction

NFL Next Gen Stats

As productive as the Patriots’ passing game was, the running game did have a harder time. All in all, the team gained 99 yards on the ground on 29 attempts for an average of 3.4 yards per rush — not necessarily bad, but not all that good either. The most carries were given to Sony Michel, but he averaged less than one yard per run. Rex Burkhead and James White, meanwhile, were more productive in their limited attempts.

That being said, the Patriots’ commitment to running the football allowed them to successfully set up a play-action game: Tom Brady went 8-of-11 after faking a hand-off, for a combined 129 yards and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett. Pittsburgh’s defense wanted to stop the run, and it did rather successfully, but the unit was unable to keep up with the passing opportunities this approach created.

Receiver separation

NFL Next Gen Stats

It is no secret that the Patriots’ defensive approach is built around taking an opponents’ best players away as well as possible to force it to operate left-handed. Sunday’s game was a good example of that given that Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets were covered tightly as the chart above shows: on average, JuJu Smith-Schuster was open 2.17 yards when getting targeted, well below the league-wide average of 2.82. He did catch six passes for 78 yards on eight targets, yes, but was still held in check as the number one wide receiver.

Speaking of being held in check: Donte Moncrief stands out even more than Smith-Schuster given that he was tightly covered on all of his ten targets, resulting in just three completions for 7 total yards. To make matters worse for him and his team, two of the passes that did not reach the first-year Steeler resulted in turnovers on downs. The Patriots limited Smith-Schuster, they essentially erased Moncrief from the game.

Their own wide receivers, meanwhile, had varying levels of openness: while Jakobi Meyers was covered tightly on his lone reception — a 20-yarder in the first quarter — Josh Gordon and especially Phillip Dorsett were pretty open from time to time. The Patriots’ three touchdowns are good examples, as the Steelers were unable to properly adjust to the offensive play design and/or win their coverage matchups.

Pass protection

Pass protection statistics

Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits Hurries
Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits Hurries
Isaiah Wynn 70 1.0 0 0
Ted Karras 70 0.0 0 1
Joe Thuney 70 0.0 0 0
Shaq Mason 67 0.0 0 3
Marcus Cannon 62 0.0 2 0
Ryan Izzo 45 0.0 1 0
Rex Burkhead 32 0.0 1 0
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Despite having two new starters on the field compared to last year — left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center Ted Karras — the Patriots’ offensive line did a generally fine job of protecting Tom Brady. While he was pressured on eight of his 37 drop-backs, only one of them resulted in an actual sack. Despite the solid performance, however, the line remains an area to keep a close eye on: with right tackle Marcus Cannon expected to miss at least some time due to a shoulder injury, the team might turn to backup Korey Cunningham or, like it did on Sunday, starting left guard Joe Thuney to keep Brady’s frontside clean.

Pass rush/run defense

Pass rush/run defense statistics

Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits Hurries Run stops
Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits Hurries Run stops
Shilique Calhoun 56 0.0 1 1 0
Jamie Colins Sr. 47 0.0 1 0 2
Chase Winovich 40 0.0 0 3 0
Michael Bennett 39 0.0 0 1 0
Deatrich Wise Jr. 20 1.0 0 0 0
Adam Butler 17 0.0 0 1 0
Danny Shelton 15 0.0 1 0 1
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New England’s defense did not necessarily post tremendous pass rushing statistics: Ben Roethlisberger was pressured 10 times on 48 passing plays, for a rate of 20.8%. For comparison, Brady was either sacked, hit or hurried on 21.6% of his drop-backs. However, the unit still did a good job when it came to keeping the Steelers’ offense as a whole off balance as the unit was unable to get into a rhythm due to a combination of stout run defense and a well-timed pass rush.

Defensive rush direction

NFL Next Gen Stats

The stout run defense mentioned above also can be seen when looking at the numbers. All in all, the Steelers carried the football 13 times for only 32 yards — with 7 of them coming on a Ben Roethlisberger scramble in the early third quarter. Pittsburgh’s backs, on the other hand, were shut down and combined to gain only 25 yards on 12 carries. Two third down runs in the second quarter were emblematic for the Steelers’ inability to get anything going on the ground.

The first saw James Conner get stuffed on a 3rd and 1 by Patriots defensive tackle Danny Shelton before reaching the first down marker. On the very next series, an off-tackle rushing attempt by Conner was blown up by Jamie Collins: New England’s linebacker burst through the line to take the ballcarrier down for a loss of 4 yards. The Steelers simple were unable to produce the tough yards on the ground before being forced to turn to the passing game to (unsuccessfully) try to dig themselves out of an early hole.

Pass rush separation

NFL Next Gen Stats

The pass rush separation chart reflects the numbers posted above. Both teams were able to put some heat on the opposing quarterback, but not necessarily do so consistently. Unsurprisingly, the two best pass rushers on either team stand out: T.J. Watt, who found some success against the right side of the Patriots’ offensive line despite not registering a sack, had an average separation of 3.77 yards per rushing attempt against Tom Brady. Michael Bennett, meanwhile, came within 3.32 yards of Ben Roethlisberger on his average pass rushing attempt.

Pass coverage

Pass coverage statistics

Player Snaps Targets Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating Pass Breakups
Player Snaps Targets Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating Pass Breakups
Devin McCourty 68 2 0 0 0 1 0.0 1
Stephon Gilmore 63 5 4 43 0 0 102.5 0
Jason McCourty 63 11 4 65 0 0 57.0 3
Jonathan Jones 55 6 1 7 0 0 39.6 2
Patrick Chung 48 4 3 16 0 0 81.3 1
Jamie Collins Sr. 47 2 2 32 0 0 118.8 0
J.C. Jackson 44 2 1 1 0 0 56.3 0
Duron Harmon 42 1 0 0 0 0 39.6 0
Chase Winovich 40 1 1 9 0 0 104.2 0
John Simon 31 1 0 0 0 0 39.6 1
Ja'Whaun Bentley 26 1 1 2 0 0 79.2 0
Terrence Brooks 16 1 0 0 0 0 39.6 0
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The Steelers feature a talented group of pass catchers, but the Patriots’ defenders decisively won the battle for air supremacy. Cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones stand out in particular: while McCourty allowed just four completions on eleven targets for 65 yards with three pass-breakups, Jones gave up only a single catch all day long despite being targeted six times by Ben Roethlisberger.

The two primarily went up against Pittsburgh’s second and third options, with Stephon Gilmore taking on JuJu Smith-Schuster most of the time. While the wideout won some of the battles, Gilmore did a good job limiting his big-play impact — Roethlisberger oftentimes had to look elsewhere with his top wideout covered by the All-Pro. All in all, the Patriots’ secondary can feel good about its performance in Week 1 across the board.