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Film room: Defensive game plan against Steelers shows Patriots’ confidence in their secondary

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

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

In the New England Patriots’ 33-3 blowout against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, we saw the great potential of this year’s defense, specifically the secondary, which had no problem locking down its opponent’s young, new receiver group. Taking a look at the All-22, we saw tons of man coverage by the Patriots with only one safety deep, showing great confidence in their corners’ ability to plaster the opposing receivers.

We also saw the front seven — although it was really the front six because the Steelers always had at least three receivers on the field — contain any attempt by the team to run the football. As a result, we got lots of third-and-longs and only one sustained drive that resulted in a field goal. Let’s go to the film to see how exactly the Patriots executed this game plan.

Base downs

On base downs, the Patriots went with a 2-4-5 nickel formation, as the Steelers came out in 11-personnel almost every play. The Patriots went with Shilique Calhoun and John Simon as the stand-up outside linebackers, and Lawrence Guy and Michael Bennett at defensive tackle; Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, and Deatrich Wise Jr. subbed in at times as well.

The Patriots also cycled through Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Ja’Whaun Bentley as the inside linebackers, with two on the field at all times. Patrick Chung was key here, as the Patriots dropped him into the box on every play on which the tight end was there as well, giving them a plus-one advantage over the offense in the run game and coverage on each gap. Here’s some pictures of the front:

The Steelers could not get anything going in the run game vs this 2-4-5 front, as they went nine carries for 17 yards against it. The Patriots’ defensive linemen played very well, shedding blocks and getting good penetration. Here are the nine runs the Steelers ran into this front:

Dropping that extra guy in the box, however, meant that the secondary had to be able to cover in the passing game one-on-one. The Patriots certainly did that. However, there are still areas in need of improvement in their cover 1 defense.

The Patriots mixed up their cornerback matchups, but for the most part we always saw Stephon Gilmore on JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers just could not get loose from these Patriots defensive backs. That is expected, though, from what is probably the most talented defensive backs group in the NFL.

Again, the Steelers did hit some openings against the Patriots’ man-to-man coverage and missed some open opportunities. I felt like we could’ve seen more rub routes and man beaters from the Steelers offense, considering how well they worked compared to the rest of their passing game.

Gilmore got beat a few times by Smith-Schuster, but that is expected from the star wide receiver. Other than that, I think the main area New England needs to improve on in its man coverage is how running backs are being covered. Here are some clips of the Steelers’ missed opportunities and their biggest completions of the night against the Pats’ man coverage:

The Patriots sprinkled in some zone looks too, but it mostly led to check-down passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers could never push the ball down field against zone and instead opted for short throws, which is yet another reason why they failed to put an extend drive together essentially all night long.

Third downs

On third downs, the Patriots went to their 3-man line packages: they primarily consisted of Shilique Calhoun and rookie Chase Winovich as the stand-up edge rushers, and Michael Bennett or Adam Butler at nose tackle.

The Patriots certainly were not stagnant in how they rushed out of these 3-man lines. They used 3, 4 and 5-man straight rushes as well as various 4 and 5-man stunts that made Roethlisberger get the ball out quickly on third downs an in turn the Patriots’ defense off the field.

Blitz Zero

We saw the Patriots heat up Roethlisberger plenty of times on Sunday night and I wanted to highlight these clips because it was great to see the defense get clever in how it sent pressure.

The Steelers never really had an answer for this coverage and it showed. The Patriots sent the kitchen sink at Roethlisberger a few times and there was nowhere to go with the football for him. They also dropped a lineman off the line of scrimmage a couple of times to get a help defender in the short middle of the field, while still getting a free blitzer. It was certainly encouraging to see the Patriots send only five rushers against 5-man pass protection, but still get immediate pressure on Pittsburgh’s quarterback.


It’s only Week 1 so there is no need to overreact to the Patriots’ outstanding and the Steelers’ poor performance on offense on Sunday night. However, there’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has a lot to work on. The home team stuffed the visitors’ entire run game with its 2-4-5 nickel front, plastered the receivers in the passing game with only one deep safety, forced short check-down throws when in zone, and exploited the Steelers’ pass protection with cover zero that Roethlisberger had no answer for.

This game plan to me — given how many times they ran cover 1 and cover 0 — means that the Patriots’ coaching staff has great confidence in this defensive backs group to lock up the receivers of a team like the Steelers, who have solid talent at wide receiver outside of Smith-Schuster as well. Thus, I expect more game plans like this to follow and am excited to see the creative matchups Bill Belichick and company will create in the secondary.