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NFL: AUG 19 Preseason - Panthers at Patriots

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

The Patriots defense will face a golden opportunity to bounce back against Pittsburgh.

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whether it was a 4th-and-7 turning into a touchdown or some crucial missed tackles, the New England Patriots defense did not live up to its capabilities in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. Sure, the unit only gave up 13 points in the 20-7 loss, but it also showed plenty of inconsistency against a mediocre-looking quarterback.

Luckily for New England, the upcoming matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers offers a prime opportunity to righten the ship. Despite beating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in overtime last week, the Steelers have shown some weakness especially on offense.

The unit led by starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and offensive coordinator Matt Canada produced just 267 yards and 13 first downs, went a mere 4-for-15 in third down situations, and averaged 4.4 yards per play. As opposed to Cincinnati’s offense, however, it did not turn the ball over and was able to benefit from, and partially capitalize on, its defense notching five takeaways on the day.

Nonetheless, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made sure to point out that one game is not a sufficient enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions about the Steelers offense.

“We’ve only seen one game, so we’ll see how it evolves,” he said earlier this week. “I don’t know if you can put too much on that one game. Certainly, there were things that stood out in it. There’s a lot of matchups. Obviously have a good back, good tight ends, good receivers, a big strong athletic quarterback. But we’ll see how they play us. Maybe they’ll play us like they played Cincinnati. Maybe they’ll play us differently.”

Time will tell what the Steelers will do, but based on their performance against Cincinnati on opening day here is our best guess at how the Patriots will find success against them.

Focus on the short passing game

Steelers quarterback Mitchell Trubisky originally entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2017, but it is fair to say that he has not lived up to that label so far in his pro career Now on his third team already, his Steelers debut last Sunday showed that he still remains a hit-or-miss player.

Going 21-for-38 (55.3%) for 194 yards and a touchdown, Trubisky was serviceable but hardly anything beyond that. Look no further than his 5.9 yards per passing attempt to find out how he approached the game, and possibly also how the Steelers coaches view him at this point in his development within their system.

Trubisky played a pretty conservative game as far as his target areas are concerned. Whether that was by design or necessity cannot be said without knowing the play calls sent in by Matt Canada, but the fact remains that he operated primarily in the short game.

Out of 33 qualifying pass attempts charted by Pro Football Focus (i.e. excluding throwaways, bats, spikes and hits while throwing), 22 were thrown either behind the line of scrimmage or within nine yards of it:

Mitchell Trubisky vs. Cincinnati: Target areas

Target area Attempts Completions Completion % Yards TDs INTs Pressure % Passer rating
Target area Attempts Completions Completion % Yards TDs INTs Pressure % Passer rating
Behind LOS/0-9 yards 22 17 77.3 103 1 0 18.2 101.1
10+ yards 11 4 36.4 91 0 0 54.5 66.9
Pro Football Focus

As can be seen, Trubisky was not just willing to attack the short parts of the field but also relatively successful doing so. Likewise, he struggled when going deep: he completed just four passes of 10+ yards, and overthrew all three of his throws beyond 30 yards.

From a Patriots perspective, the goal appears to be an obvious one. In order to take Trubisky out of his comfort zone, those easy completions need to be removed.

How can this be done, though? One idea would be to force him to speed up his process by sending extra pressure, something that would also work against an offensive line that pass-protected relatively well versus Cincinnati but has shown some weaknesses in its overall performance. Additionally, the Patriots could go the direct opposite route by reducing pressure but swarming the short and intermediate zones with linebackers or dime backers.

The idea to invite him to go deep rather than methodically string plays together might run a bit counter to how New England usually operates on the defensive side of the ball. However, Trubisky has shown little to make the assumption he can suddenly turn into an effective deep(er)-ball thrower from one week to the next.

Bill Belichick and his staff will therefore likely have a few tricks up their sleeves to achieve one goal: if we get beaten by Mitchell Trubisky through the air, he needs to earn it by hitting those same big-time throws he failed to complete versus the Bengals.

Keep the quarterback in the pocket

When Belichick spoke about Trubisky this week, he mentioned one part of his game in particular: his mobility. While not the best thrower in the league by any means, the 28-year-old can be a threat when breaking contain — either to scramble for positive yardage or to keep a cool head while ad-libbing.

“Athletic quarterback, he’s scrambled against us,” Belichick said. “He had a couple big scrambles against Cincinnati, not necessarily for long yardage, but to extend plays, get away from the blitz, things like that. ... You can’t let him run around. We saw him in Chicago do a number on us in the scramble. So, we have to make sure we account for him.”

Back in 2018, when the future world champion faced Trubisky in his second year with the Chicago Bears, he gained 81 rushing yards on just six attempts and also found the end zone once. The Patriots ended up winning 38-31, but the quarterback’s elusiveness and ability to keep plays alive that appeared to collapse around him was on full display that day.

When looking at the tape from last week’s game against the Bengals, it appears little has changed.

On this 3rd-and-5, Trubisky (10) moves to his right on what appears to be a designed roll-out to the weak-side of the formation. With the receivers on this side of Cincinnati’s one-deep man coverage look unable to get open quickly, however, he decides to tuck the ball in and run for it.

Trubisky is able to gain just enough yards to move the chains before being brought down. The play itself was made possible because the frontside contain — 4i-technique end Joseph Ossai (58) — was sucked to the inside, creating space for Trubisky to move into.

Him turning from passing to a running quarterback is not the only problem Trubisky’s mobility poses. It also allows him to extend plays and buy both himself and his pass catchers more time.

Take this pivotal 3rd-and-1 during the team’s game-winning drive in overtime:

Despite the offsides flag thrown against Cincinnati edge Sam Hubbard (94), the play was kept alive. As opposed to Steelers right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (76), Hubbard does not slow down and goes after Trubisky; the QB evades the attempted takedown and finds an opening to his left to move into.

While Ossai chases him to provide pressure, the added time does allow him to find tight end Pat Freiermuth (88) wide open in the middle of the field. The result is a 26-yard pickup to move into Cincinnati territory with under 30 seconds left in the game; the Steelers went on to gain more yards to set up a game-winning 53-yard field goal.

What both those plays show is that Trubisky breaking contain can be a real problem — one that can open space for chunk plays that otherwise would not be there.

Stay disciplined against odd looks

Against the Bengals, Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada did not shy away from digging deep into the playbook to put his team and its new quarterback in advantageous positions. While that process did not always succeed, Pittsburgh was still able to generate some positive plays out of unusual looks or designs.

The team’s longest play of the day was a tight end screen off play-action for 32 yards. The second longest saw the Steelers gain 31 on a reverse flea-flicker:

There is a thin line between success and failure on every NFL play, and on such trick calls in particular. This one is a perfect example.

While it did eventually became a positive one for the Steelers, running back Najee Harris (22) setting his protection too deep forced Mitchell Trubisky (10) to throw off his back foot. That was not a problem due to Pat Freiermuth (88) being wide open, but it was still a close call — and one other defenses such as New England’s might be able to exploit if similar looks present themselves.

Of course, the Steelers also relied on more conventional plays that nonetheless featured a different wrinkle. Wide receiver Chase Claypool receiving six handoffs is an example for that, including the following that resulted in a 15-yard gain:

With running back Jaylen Warren (30) as his lead blocker and wide receiver George Pickens (14) setting a pick from his route on the right-side perimeter, Claypool (11) was able to get around the corner and into the second level of the defense. The run was his biggest of the day, but not the only noteworthy play he had as a ball carrier.

The third-year wide receiver finished with 36 yards on the ground, on top of his 18 on four receptions. Five of Claypool’s runs came on jet sweeps, with another happening on a reverse.

Those plays such as the flea flicker above were some of the best the Steelers offense had in Week 1 against Cincinnati — a testament to the unit’s reliance on scheme rather than ability, especially at the quarterback position. If New England stays disciplined and does not get fooled by odd formations or misdirection, the unit should be fine.

Finish tackles

Of course, according to Bill Belichick the scheme itself is not the only part of the Steelers offense to keep an eye on.

“I think you have to look at the whole group,” he said this week. “Harris is a problem. Tight ends are a problem. Receivers are a problem. It’s really everything. You can’t just go into this game and say we’re just going to shut down one guy. That’s simply not going to be the answer. [Diontae] Johnson’s an explosive player. Claypool, big, fast good with the ball in his hands. Obviously Freiermuth. They use Gunner [Olszewski] in there. So, they’ve got a bunch of guys that are explosive.”

This explosiveness results in some big-play potential. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, cannot afford to do the same thing it did in Week 1 to help the Steelers take advantage of it: miss tackles. According to Pro Football Reference, the New England defense missed a combined 10 tackle attempts against Miami for a rate of 15.2 percent.

Opening week is always a bit difference than the rest of the season in that regard, something pointed out by New England linebackers coach Steve Belichick after the game. However, the gist remains the same regardless of when a game is played.

Missed tackles are a way to help turn a potential mismatch in one team’s favor into a disadvantageous one rather quickly. The Patriots know this, and this week it is about the results showing up on the field.

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