As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the New England Patriots’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
PATRIOTS’ RUN DEFENSE
As I wrote in the offensive scouting report, I’m basic the bulk of this report off Week One which is an admittedly small sample size. It was a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins, though it’s important to note the defense only allowed 13 of those points. The rest came on a sack/fumble/touchdown by Miami’s defense. Giving up 13 points in an opener is nothing to sneeze at the like the Steelers, the Pats are relying on their defense to make plays and keep the score down.
Their run defense was generally strong, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry to Mike McDaniel’s run-oriented attack. The Patriots remain a bit of a hybrid front who can have three or four defenders play with their hand down but generally, I see them work out of four-man surfaces and they’re more even than odd.
Linebacker Ja’waun Bentley is someone I was hoping would hit the open market and land on the Steelers’ radar, a big and old-school thumper, but he remained in New England. He led the team with seven tackles in Week One, though has missed some practice time with a toe injury. This was an aggressive run defense with their secondary recording three tackles for loss, two by Kyle Dugger and one by Adrian Phillips. They employ a lot of three-safety looks between those two (Phillips the third safety at a 45% snap share) along with veteran Devin McCourty, still going strong at 35 years old.
My major takeaway watching the Patriots’ defense is don’t run on the perimeter against them. No tosses. It’s something they see in camp and practice a lot because they do it offensively and they’re very good defending it. Fast flow defense with safeties in the box that don’t let backs get wide. Some examples of Miami trying…and failing.
By the way, that first toss example is “Zorro,” a part of the 49ers and now Dolphins’ run scheme the Steelers will see later. Check back a month from now and I’ll be talking about it.
Should note the Dolphins were just 6/14 (42.9%) on third down last week. Steelers were worse but third down could again be tough sledding this Sunday. New England’s defense failed to force a turnover in the opener.
PATRTIOTS’ PASS DEFENSE
A veteran safety group with some change at corner. Jonathan Jones, one of my draft crushes when he came out of Auburn, is another vet and taking over for J.C. Jackson, who secured the bag out in LA with the Chargers. Jones travelled with WR Tyreek Hill last week and we’ll see if he matches up on Diontae Johnson this time around.
They generally held Miami’s skill guys in check and the Dolphins didn’t rip off many big plays. Hill caught eight passes but his long went for just 26. They did allow a 4th and 7 slant to Jaylen Waddle for a touchdown thanks to a couple of missed tackles. It’s also worth nothing they blew a C3 on the first snap of the game, the CB biting on the pre-snap motion and squatted on the flat. A bad throw saved a touchdown.
Generally, they played Cover 2 against 2×1 and Cover 1 against 3×1. They’re a skilled pattern-match team that pass routes off effectively.
From a blitz standpoint, they did quite a bit of that against the Dolphins. 44.4%, fourth highest of the week. They do like to run Double Barrel/MUG looks into the ‘A’ gaps and run “Rain,” which means the ILB blitzes is the one away from the center turn. Two examples with the Dolphins trying to counter in the second with a full slide protection, though it allows the rusher off the edge to come free. So there’s pros/cons. Backs will have to be stout in pass pro like they were last week.
It’s a good pass rush that sacked the Dolphins three times last week. One by Bentley, one by Matthew Judon, and one by Deatrich Wise Jr. Judon was their best pass rusher with a whopping four QB hits in the opener. Pittsburgh’s o-line will again be tested.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Steelers sneaked out a win against the Bengals last week in Cincinnati and now welcome the New England Patriots to town this Sunday at Acrisure Stadium. The offense proved to yet again underwhelming in the team’s regular season opener, completing only 4-of-15 third down attempts while accumulating 194 yards passing and 75 yards rushing in a game that went to overtime with the benefit of the defense getting five turnovers for extra possessions.
Still, the Pittsburgh offense did what they had to do to walk out of Cincinnati the victor, moving down the field to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. Now, they will face the challenge of going against a Bill Belichick-led defense that may not have a bunch of bonafide superstars, but rather plenty of solid defenders at their respective positions that come together to form a respectable unit.
The Patriots DL doesn’t have that Pro-Bowl defender making headlines, but they do possess several guys that play technique-sound football and execute their jobs at a high level. DE #91 Deatrich Wise Jr. has developed into a solid base defensive end that can move up and down the LOS, playing outside shade of the OT and kick inside as a 3-tech on the guard. He plays the run well and is disruptive as a pass rusher, playing with great effort and improved hand usage like a two-hand swipe or swim move to defeat blocks and rush the QB.
#93 Lawrence Guy is the other listed DE, but plays more as a pseudo-DT, tipping the scales at 6’4, 315lb as a 3-4 DE. He isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he has been a sound run defender for most of his professional career. #96 Sam Roberts and #97 DaMarcus Mitchell provide depth behind Guy and Wise.
For the interior, #92 Davon Godchaux came over from Miami last season and has made himself a fixture on the Patriots’ defensive line. Like Guy, Godchaux isn’t a highly touted pass rusher, but makes his money as a stout run defender, taking on blocks and holding gaps at the LOS, having the strength and quickness to shed and bottle up ballcarriers on inside runs. #90 Christian Barmore is entering his second year and is still looking to develop into the player he was touted to be coming out of Alabama. He only got home for 1.5 sacks last season but posted 51 total pressures in 2021 according to PFF which was top ten at the position. #98 Carl Davis Jr. is a depth piece as well.
The Patriots play their linebackers in a similar mold to Pittsburgh, having your traditional off-ball inside linebackers as well as your on-ball outside linebackers who function as stand-up defensive ends. Still, New England does a good job of moving bodies around the formation to exploit matchups. The headliner of this group is OLB #9 Matt Judon. Judon is a disruptive force off the edge, starting his career in Baltimore before signing with New England last offseason. He had his best season as a pro in 2021, posting 12.5 sacks and 14 TFLs en route to his third Pro Bowl nod. He is well-utilized on twists and stunts but also wins with power and speed off the edge.
#55 Josh Uche is entering his third season and is a bit of a tweener at 6’3, 245lb, winning with speed as a pass rusher but has the strength and leverage to get underneath OTs and win with power occasionally as well. #59 Anfernee Jennings also provides depth at OLB for New England, being more of a run defender than a pass rusher given his limited athleticism but execution of taking on blocks and setting the edge.
For inside linebackers, #8 Ja’Whaun Bentley has taken over the role of downhill thumper that used to be manned by Dont’a Hightower. Bentley comes in at 6’2, 255lb and plays every bit of it, playing with a reckless abandonment near the LOS as he will run through blocks just as much as he will stack and shed them to blow up plays in the backfield. He is also an accomplished blitzer that will put pressure on the QB. He has played both in the box and on the edge in the past, making him a movable piece based on the scheme.
#50 Raekwon McMillian is coming back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the 2021 season but showed promise as an athletic run-and-chase linebacker during his previous stops in Miami and Las Vegas. The Patriots acquired #30 Mack Wilson this offseason from the Cleveland Browns, hoping to add yet another former Crimson Tide defender into the fold. Wilson started 14 games as a rookie in 2019 but has been slowly phased out of Cleveland’s starting rotation. He has good instincts in zone coverage and is a willing tackler but doesn’t take the best angles of pursuit and likes to leave his feet as a tackler. #48 Jahlani Tavai also provides depth as a former 2nd-round pick of the Detroit Lions.
#31 Jonathan Jones is an undersized, yet athletic cover corner that has the speed and explosiveness to run with most receivers he’ll face in man coverage. He has a quick trigger downhill on underneath throws to contest in zone coverage and can be opportunistic at attacking the football in the air. #2 Jalen Mills was also signed last offseason and was moved back to CB after playing safety for the Eagles in 2020. He is willing to play the run and does better in zone coverage on underneath throws compared to man coverage where his lack of quick twitch and overall awareness leave him susceptible to giving up separation or getting beat on double moves down the field.
#41 Myles Bryant was signed back to the practice squad after getting cut as a UDFA in 2020, getting a helmet in nine games that season, he stepped into more of a prominent role last year as a nickel/dime defender in the slot, showcasing the feistiness and competitive demeanor you love to see in undersized slot corners. He is more than willing to stick his face in the fan as a run defender and is quick to break on passes and contest them in attempt to break up the pass. Rookie CBs #25 Marcus Jones and #34 Jack Jones are depth players behind the starters who have ample ball production coming out of college.
The heralded veteran of the safety position for New England is none other than #32 Devin McCourty. The two-time Pro Bowler has a strong case for the Hall of Fame as one of the best backend players of the last decade, posting 102 pass deflections and 31 interceptions in his 12-year NFL career thus far. While not as spry as he used to be, McCourty still has the range to cover the post and make plays on either sideline from midfield as referenced from his INT in the clip above on the Bentley pressure.
Opposite of McCourty is S #23 Kyle Dugger who is a dynamic playmaker in his own right. The third year pro out of Lenoir Rhyne aligns all over the formation, playing split zone deep in the secondary but will roll up into the box as a strong safety/sub package linebacker and can be deployed in the slot. He stands 6’2, 220lb and pacts quite the punch as a tackler, playing with phenomenal pursuit of the football. He also does a good job covering backs and TEs, picking up five PBUs and four INTs last season as a moveable chess piece in Belichick’s defense.
Behind Dugger and McCourty, #21 Adrian Phillips is also another prominent member of the secondary, having started 13 games last season and logged a start last week against the Dolphins. More of a SS type that does his best work in the box and near the LOS, Phillips is a steady player that provides sound run defense as well as good instincts in zone coverage in the middle of the field and the flats, being a great #3 safety who sees plenty of snaps thanks to his versatility.
#3 Jabrill Peppers signed with New England this offseason after coming off a knee injury last season in New York with the Giants. He figures to play a similar role to Dugger as more of a SS type. #22 Cody Davis is another backup that is a core special teams contributor.