Sunday, September 13, 2015

Patriot Grades - Steelers' Team Speed Dictated In-Game Adjustments To Run Defense

On the surface, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line dominated the New England Patriots' defensive line - but upon closer examination, things were not nearly as bad as they originally appeared..

The Steelers are one of a only a handful of teams that can spread a defense out to the point that it can affect their tackle box the entire game, as their receiver corps is nothing but pure unadulterated speed - check that - pure, unadulterated, experienced route running speed, and on Thursday night, that speed forced New England into constant nickle situations, leaving six players in the box.

It seemed as if Steelers' runner DeAngelo Williams was ripping off double-digit sprints through the Patriots' defense every time he carried the ball, but in truth that occurred only in the first drives of each half. On the first drive of the game, Williams went exclusively to the right carrying three times for 33 yards, but for the rest of the half he went seven for 20...

...then on the first drive of the second half, Williams ripped straight up the gut four times for 46 yards, but the rest of the game he went seven for 27 yards. In all, for the first drives of each half, Williams carried seven times for a 79 yards for a whopping 11.2 yards per carry, while after the Patriots adjusted, he slipped markedly, carrying 14 times for 47 yards, a 3.3 yards per carry average.

The difference? New England went Big Nickle by bringing in a third safety to fit a seventh player in the box, switching between two, three and four down man fronts depending on the personnel the Steelers brought on each down - and the result was that instead of linebackers and linemen chasing plays down from behind with a guard in their face, the linebackers were able to read and diagnose, arriving in the gap at the same time as the back.

Overall, the Steelers' offensive line had a relatively easy night in pass protection and were able to double down on the Patriots' rushers, as Pittsburgh spreading out the defense didn't afford New England many blitz opportunities. There were a couple of plays in the second half where Roesthlisberger could have made himself a sandwich before throwing the ball, but that could also be considered a testament to how the Patriots' coverages improved exponentially when going zone.

New England registered five quarterback hits and three sacks in Big Ben's 38 drop backs, but one of the sacks came on a failed receiver option when Malcom Brown caught up with Antonio Brown and brought him down when the latter ran out of green and into his own linemen, and another came on a "A" gap hug blitz by Dont'a Hightower...

...the only legitimate sack by a lineman was by defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who played head and shoulders above the rest of the defensive line, simply due to sheer mass and strength - something that New England lost on the inside as the early hip injury to tackle Dominique Easley forced a change in the rotation, replacing him with defensive end Geneo Grissom, who gave up nearly 40 pounds in the exchange...

Regardless, there were reasons for the appearance of poor defensive line line play, but thankfully for the Patriots, they don't face many more opponents that can spread them out quite like Pittsburgh did.

Quarterbacks - A

Brady was, well, Brady.

Remarkable poise and a quarterback that is far more than his contemporaries could possibly hope to be, as he has no peer in the business. Just ask his opponents.

That said, the man is human, and while he makes things look automatic at times, he does have the propensity to overthrow the deep ball, and he has such confidence in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman that he seems to take more chances in trying to fit balls into tight coverage to them - which explains the first quarter throw to Gronkowski in quadruple coverage.

Bit that's nitpicking...

Running Backs - A

Coming out of college, Dion Lewis was projected to be a change-of-pace back but wasn't considered a true passing back due his struggles in pass protection and lack of explosion out of his cuts.

Well, either he got much better or those scouts were talking out of their hind parts, because Lewis showed up in pass pro and in the pattern, going for 120 yards of total offense and helping a couple of Steelers defensive backs find their socks after he juked them right out of them...

...He's a tough inside runner, but he missed a couple of holes in favor of trying to gain the edge, and he put the ball on the ground once, but given the fact that his running forced Pittsburgh's front seven to respect the Patriots' running game and give Brady an extra split second on the play action, that's an "A" in anyone's book.

Pass Catchers - A+

As good a quarterback Brady is in that he makes the players around him better, sometimes that wisdom cuts both ways.

There isn't a more sure pair of hands in the game than the gigantic paws of tight end Rob Gronkowski, unless you're talking about wide receiver Julian Edelman,  Danny Amendola has mitts as well, as does Aaron Dobson, though his catches cause a bit of anxiety with fans as he has a trademark on double-clutching the ball.

And we would be remiss in excluding tight end Scott Chandler, whose hands are even bigger than Gronkowski's - and together should form perhaps the most lethal twin towers in all of football.

All of them helped the passing game look good, but it all came against a Steelers' secondary that was less-then-stellar, to be kind. They will need to get Amendola and Dobson more involved in the offense going forward, as well as hoping that passing back Travaris Cadet, who is more of a receiver, can get healthy and add another dimension to the corps.

Offensive Line - A

How cool was it to see Nate Solder pop Jarvis Jones in the face mask?

Sure, it resulted in a 15 yard penalty, but it set the the early tone that the Patriots offensive line was not going to be intimidated by - nor would they be willing to tolerate - any extra-curricular activity. So when Jones jammed a fist into Solder's throat, Solder clocked him with one of those George Foreman ham-fisted shots that would have dropped him were it not for the aforementioned face mask.

The fist fighting in the trenches started in earnest at that point, and the Patriots linemen gave as good as they got, and not only protected Brady as well as anyone could have expected, not only opened creases for the explosive Lewis to squeeze through, but did so with a rotation along the interior that at times saw three rookies on the field at the same time - and none of them responsible for their mirror laying a hand on Brady.

Of course, Brady was getting the ball out of his hand quickly which always helps, but on the times that the rush did get to him, it was a matter of linebackers and safeties coming on plays designed for them to be set free, as in Bud Dupree's sack of Brady on a screen play in which Both Sebastian Vollmer and Lewis vacated the strong side, giving Dupree a clear line to the quarterback...

Special Teams - A

Punter Ryan Allen was solid, though he sailed one of his punts into the end zone for a touchback, and would have bounced another through the end zone had Antonio Brown not fair caught one of Allen's boomers on his own seven yard line.  Brown also had to call for a fair catch on his 19 and gained only three yards on his only return of the evening before gunner Matthew Slater brought him down.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed all four of his extra point attempts and forced four of his five kickoffs through the back of the end zone, Pittsburgh's Dri Archer returning the fifth for 22 yards before being brought down by Nate Ebner.

Defensive Line - C

Already covered above, but while there are reasons why the Steelers' offensive line dominated the Patriots' defensive line, the fact still remains that the linemen need a better anchor in their resolve going forward to not allow the opposing guards get to the second level to eliminate the linebackers, who are back there to make plays off of the linemen occupying blockers.

Linebackers - B

With the Steelers taking advantage of the Patriots four-man defensive line at the point of attack, they were able to open up multiple gaps on either side of the center, giving Williams the time to react to whichever gap Dont'a Hightower shot through, leaving the big middle linebacker grasping at air while cutting into the clear gap, forcing the New England defenders to chase him down from behind.

Hightower and Jamie Collins were the sole linebackers on the field for much of the contest, though the Patriots eventually aligned into a 3-3-5 look to patch the leak in run defense - Rob Ninkovich seeing the field more often than not in this mode - which gave the Patriots a slight advantage in disguising which linebacker was shooting the gap.

In all, the linebackers were an active group, by default - and are apt to be just as active next weekend at Buffalo, a team that promises to cause problems closer to the line of scrimmage, with a quarterback who will demand better outside containment and sideline to sideline versatility from the linebacking corps.

Secondary - B

Despite giving up two long receptions to Brown, Malcolm Butler had a decent debut as the team's number one corner, and former 49er and Raider Tarell Brown had himself a night as well. The issues lied with the Steelers running go routes out of the slot and making slot corner Bradley Fletcher play with his back to the ball which, as anyone who has followed his career will tell you, is never a good thing.

But this is something that the Seahawks exposed in the Patriots' coverage schemes in the Super Bowl, and it nearly ruined them - and while the Patriots were saved in that game by Butler replacing Kyle Arrington, it also provided a blueprint for other teams to employ against New England: Put a tall receiver in the slot and take the corner for a ride.

In this case it was 6' 3" Darrius Heywrd-Bey and his 4.3 wheels taking Fletcher down the field, and it wasn't pretty - in fact, Heyward-Bey got loose for a 43 yard gain, and nearly had a touchdown in the following series had he been more aware of where he was on the field, as his foot grazed the sideline in the end zone as he caught a bomb from Roethlisberger.

Fletcher was also a step slow in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger tried to find Heyward-Bey in the end zone from 50 yards out, but Duron Harmon stepped in front of them and picked off the ball to thwart the best chance the Steelers had of getting back into the game.

Harmon doesn't get a lot of credit from the fans or the media, but he shows up once or twice a game with an impact play and seems to always take the best angles to the ball - as witnessed both in last season's divisional round playoff game against the Ravens and also on Thursday night in using his speed and knack for the proper angle to undercut routes that the opposing quarterbacks don't seem to notice until it's too late.

But both plays were game changers, and one really can't expect anything more from the centerfielder.

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