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Patriots vs. Steelers game plan: How New England’s offense will find success in Week 2

After struggling on opening day, the Patriots will get a chance to right the ship versus Pittsburgh.

Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The New England Patriots offense had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. The unit led by quarterback Mac Jones and offensive assistant coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge scored just seven points in the opening day loss, while also turning the football over three times.

Of course, the Dolphins field a very talented defense but the Patriots simply made to many errors on that side of the ball to be competitive. Needless to say that they quickly have to quickly flip the page considering their Week 2 opponent.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, after all, did not just win their first game of the season by upsetting the reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals on the road; the team of head coach Mike Tomlin also registered a league-high five takeaways as well as seven sacks. The unit was disruptive throughout the day and will now go against a Patriots offense that does not offer the same firepower as the Cincinnati attack on paper.

New England knows the challenge it will be up against.

“I think it’s a super talented defense,” Mac Jones told reporters earlier this week. “Play a lot of different coverages, definitely fly to the ball. Obviously, Minkah [Fitzpatrick] does a great job. I had some experience, he was my former teammate at Alabama, and I have a lot of respect for him and all the guys on their defense. He makes a lot of plays out there.

“They’ve got playmakers all over the field. It’s a really good defense to go against. We don’t get to play against them a lot, but just got to be ready to go and correct the things we want to correct and focus on ourselves.”

How exactly can Jones and company find success against a disruptive Pittsburgh D and live up to its status as 2-point favorites (per DraftKings Sportsbook)? Using the unit’s own season opener as a foundation, here is our best-guess projection at what New England has to do.

Get the ball out quickly

The Patriots’ much-maligned offensive line caught a break this week, as Steelers star linebacker T.J. Watt will miss the contest after suffering a pectoral injury in Week 1. With Watt out, Pittsburgh has lost its most disruptive player — one who had a sack and an interception against the Bengals, and who is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

It is no secret that Watt’s absence weakens the entire unit, something New England head coach Bill Belichick also acknowledged this week.

“They’re obviously better with Watt, but it is what it is,” he said.”

Nonetheless, Belichick was quick to point out that the Steelers are a good defensive team even with their best pass rusher on the sidelines; looking at the unit throughout confirms this and shows that the Patriots still cannot take Pittsburgh’s front line defenders lightly. For starters, six of last week’s seven sacks, were produced by players not named T.J. Watt. Three of those came courtesy of Alex Highsmith.

Highsmith was a menace against Cincinnati’s rebuilt offensive line. Not only did he have three sacks, he also registered three other quarterback disruptions as well as two tackles for loss. He may have benefitted from Watt lining up across him, but the former third-round draft pick still made plays as a technically proficient pass rusher.

Lining up exclusively on the right side of the defense, he will be going up against New England left tackle Trent Brown on Sunday. Brown, of course, is coming off a disappointing performance that saw him give up two sacks — including one that led to a Mac Jones fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

What Brown will face is a player capable of winning with both finesse and straight-up speed around the edge.

Highsmith is a problem, and the Patriots can do two things to counteract his presence: chip him at the line of scrimmage with a tight end to disrupt his timing, or get the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands quickly by incorporating quick-developing routes such as slants, under routes or flats.

The latter might also become important given that Pittsburgh’s pass-rushing prowess does not stop with Highsmith. Interior defensive linemen Cameron Hayward and Larry Ogunjobi have also proven themselves as productive players; players who can collapse the pocket by driving the linemen in front of them back when facing 1-on-1 opportunities.

It remains to be seen how Watt’s absence changes things for the Steelers, though. Could they rely on more blitz plays, something that worked for the Dolphins against the Patriots last week (and under Flores in 2021)? Possibly. Against the Bengals, however, the team did not rely on any crazy scheme pressures to go after Joe Burow.

The Steelers mostly used Cover 2 creepers with a slot blitz and the opposite edge dropping, often with Highsmith looping to contain. Depending on the package, the blitzer was either cornerback Arthur Maulet in standard nickel packages and Terrell Edmunds in big nickel looks.

The team also sent five rushers from a Cover 1 with a safety capping the slot as a tell for the Patriots.

Regardless of what the Steelers will do sans Watt, their defensive line still features plenty of talent — talent that will make life hard for the Patriots offensive line if it fails to properly carry out its assignments, and make the correct reads. Against Miami, that proved to be a problem at times and led to several breakdowns; the same happening this week would lead to another long day for Mac Jones and company.

Decipher the defense

The Steelers defense is directed by some experienced coaches. Head coach Mike Tomlin has a defensive background, working on that side of the ball Tampa Bay and Minnesota before his arrival in Pittsburgh; defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has called defenses in Detroit and Cincinnati; linebackers coach and senior assistant Brian Flores was head coach in Miami and the Patriots’ play-caller on defense during the 2018 Super Bowl run.

What all three of them have in common is their affinity for making life hard on opposing quarterbacks by not tipping their hands. Flores ran some of the best blitz packages in the league during his time as Dolphins head coach, while both Tomlin and Austin have specialized in post-snap movements to hide coverage intentions.

Especially after the acquisition of another ex-Dolphin, Minkah Fitzpatrick, in 2019, the Steelers have relied heavily on one-deep coverage shells such as Cover 3 and Cover 1. This is a change compared to the previous New England-Pittsburgh matchups that saw the team run plenty of two-deep looks stemming from Tomlin’s experience in a Tampa 2 defense.

Having a pair of versatile and athletically impressive safeties in Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, however, allowed his defense to incorporate more aggressive coverages and motions. Just take a look at the unit’s first play from last week’s game against the Bengals:

The play already set the tone and was a sign of things to come. Pittsburgh showed a two-high look with Tre Norwood (21) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) as the deep men. At the snap, however, Fitzpatrick rolled down to reveal a Cover 3 behind him.

Such a rotation is nothing unusual per se, but the Steelers used it excessively against Cincinnati. A majority of their defensive plays started with what appeared to be a two-high defense, and on seemingly ever other snap one of the safeties — Norwood, Fitzpatrick or Terrell Edmunds — would move out of position to reveal either a Cover 3 or Cover 1 look.

This rotation is one of the most common used by Pittsburgh and it forces the quarterback and his receivers to quickly change his progressions from MOFO to MOFC: the middle of the field will be open in his pre-snap read (MOFO) but will close after the play gets underway (MOFC).

Given that the Patriots’ defense employs several option routes, the pressure will not just be on Mac Jones to make the correct read but also on the wide receivers and tight ends to get in the correct position. Routes, after all, can look drastically different in a MOFO versus a MOFC alignment:

Jones and his pass catchers not being on the same page could have disastrous results given Pittsburgh’s ball-hawking abilities in the secondary. Read-and-react skills will be tested come Sunday.

Counter Pittsburgh’s 2-4-5 looks

Week 1 was a confirmation of sorts that the Patriots will more actively incorporate two-tight end sets into their offense this season. It is not hard to see why: Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are both highly talented players with complementary skillsets to put pressure on any defense.

Henry is a big-bodied target who can feast in the middle of the field (especially against defenses like the Steelers used to play them pre-Minkah Fitzpatrick trade). Jonnu Smith, meanwhile, is one of the better run-after-the-catch tight ends in the NFL and versatile enough to line up all over the formation.

Those two will be focal points of the Patriots’ defense again this week, and it would not be a surprise to see the Steelers counter by rolling out its 2-4-5 big nickel looks. The play above illustrating the post-snap movements already is an example of that; Pittsburgh had three safeties on the field playing behind a 4-2 front featuring only two down-linemen as well as four linebackers (two on, two off the line).

The team may have used this look only six times in Week 1, but it did so whenever Cincinnati went big by bringing two tight ends onto the field. Given the Patriots’ affinity for those personnel groupings, Pittsburgh might feel prompted to run plenty of 2-4-5 packages to be better equipped to handle New England’s size.

Against the Bengals, the plan worked well: Joe Burrow and Co. averaged only 3.4 yards per play. That does not mean Cincinnati did not find some success, especially in the ground game.

With the Steelers using only two down-linemen, after all, they are sacrificing size up front for more size in the backend. The Bengals tried to gain an advantage by incorporating a concept mentioned quite a bit in regards to the Patriots this year: outside zone.

Granted, New England’s outside zone game has yet to fully reach its potential — the team ran it three times against Miami for a grand total of one yard — but the Steelers’ 2-4-5 defense might provide a favorable look to use it more frequently.

Just take a look at the following run play from Sunday against Cincinnati:

The Steelers only employing two big bodies — Larry Ogunjobi (99) and Cameron Heyward (97) — might create opportunities to create a better push up the field and get linemen to the second level. The Bengals do it here with old friend Ted Karras (64) taking on off-the-ball linebacker Myles Jack (51); on the backside, meanwhile, right tackle La’el Collins (71) and tight end Drew Sample (89) create a lane for a cutback.

Joe Mixon (28) eventually gets taken down from behind after a modest gain, but the play had potential. At the very least, it showed that Pittsburgh still needed to respect the run versus its lighter front.

If the Patriots get into similar situations on Sunday, it would therefore not be a surprise if they try their luck as well — and if only to eventually help set up some bootleg or play-action concepts. Speaking of which...

Incorporate more play-action

The Patriots ran minimal play-action against the Dolphins, possibly out of respect for the team’s abilities in the blitz game. The Steelers, as noted above, have not been as aggressive when it comes to sending extra rushers even with Flores now part of their staff.

Will any of that change against the Patriots and with Watt out? That remains to be seen, but New England head coach Bill Belichick is not expecting any drastic changes from his team’s opponent this week.

“I can’t imagine they’re going to revamp their whole defense in one week,” he said. “I don’t know why they would. They play a lot of people anyway. They played a lot of people in the Cincinnati game. They played over 100 plays on defense. I think they’re probably pretty comfortable with what they have because they played those guys, and they played pretty well against, obviously, a good offense.

“So, I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of dramatic changes, like go to a whole big new scheme or anything. I don’t think that’s really their style.”

With Pittsburgh likely not suddenly turning into a blitz-heavy team, the Patriots might change their approach to running play-action concepts. Frankly, it would make sense for them to run more such plays than the two they had last week. Just take a look at Joe Burrow’s numbers last week as an example (via Pro Football Focus):

Joe Burrow vs. Pittsburgh: Passing concepts

Pressure Dropbacks Attempts Completions Completion % Yards TDs INTs Pressure % Throwaways Passer rating
Pressure Dropbacks Attempts Completions Completion % Yards TDs INTs Pressure % Throwaways Passer rating
Play action 8 7 5 71.4 52 0 0 25.0 0 92.6
No play action 57 46 28 60.9 286 2 4 29.8 1 57.0
Pro Football Focus

Of course, incorporating more play-action would somewhat contradict the aforementioned point about the Patriots getting the football out quickly versus a potent pass rush. However, it would serve as a complementary mode of attack more than anything else; the goal is to keep the defense honest and put the linebackers in conflict — especially in those 2-4-5 packages Pittsburgh might regularly run.

The Bengals did not take fully embrace this on Sunday, in part because they were playing from behind almost from the get-go. When they did use it, however, they did have some success:

On this particular play, the fake handoff drew the Steelers’ off-ball defenders closer to the line of scrimmage which in turn opened up a bubble between them and the secondary. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (1) was able to find space and eventually able to break a tackle and turn the play into one of Cincinnati’s biggest of the day.

What helped Chase get open was the Steelers playing off-man coverage, something they did regularly that day. While the Patriots do not have a player of Chase’s caliber, they can still exploit those looks if they present themselves; the team’s wide receiver group — Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne — has the collective foot quickness to hit holes in the underneath zones should they open up.

As can be seen, using play-action concepts can help with that.

Hold onto the football

We already mentioned this last week, and could so every one moving forward as well, but holding onto the football will again be integral for the Patriots this week. This is especially true given that the team suffered three giveaways against the Dolphins last week.

Meanwhile, as noted above, the Steelers notched a league-high five takeaways: the defense intercepted Joe Burrow four times — via Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cameron Sutton and Akhello Witherspoon — while Cameron Heyward also recovered a fumble. Cincinnati was still able to take the game to overtime, but one would imagine the Patriots’ margin of error being a lot smaller than that.

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