Thursday, September 10, 2015

Patriots' Front Seven, Passing Backs Key To Success Against Pittsburgh

The times, they are a changin'.

When one converses about the Pittsburgh Steelers, the thought process always allows for the brain to focus on the defensive side of the ball. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers have traditionally leaned on a ferocious set of linebackers to set the tone for their perennially top-rated defense, which has carried their entire team for decades...

...but that isn't the case any longer. Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have become an offensive-minded entity that has chosen to outscore folks rather than dominate them on defense - and the results have been mixed.
Shifty Dion Lewis and equally shifty James White are keys on Thursday night

Certainly, they have been the second most successful team of the new millennium, winning two Super Bowls and qualifying for the playoffs nine times, but seem to run in cycles of twos, making the post season two years, then skipping a season before hammering out two more playoff berths, and so on, and so on...

The script has changed a bit recently, as the Steelers posted identical 8-8 records in 2012 and 2013 before earning a wildcard berth in 2014, riding the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their second-ranked offense to an 11-5 record, only to be slapped by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round.

On the surface, that's progress - under the tarp, however, is the fact that they had to win four straight to end the regular season in order to qualify

For certain, it has been feast or famine in running game. When the Steelers were good, they were very good, rushing for 151 yards per game in the nine games where they rushed for over 100 yards - but when they were bad, they were atrocious, averaging just 66 yards per game in the other seven - the trend pointing out that whenever they played a team with a dynamic and stout defensive line, their offensive line just couldn't open holes big enough for their backs to power through...

,,,as Baltimore, Houston, the New York Jets, Kansas City and Cincinnati all held the vaunted Steeler's running game well under the Mendoza line. Good thing for them that Roethlisberger geared up half way through the season and put up some crazy numbers, or they would have been looking at another 8-8 campaign.

After a week 6 loss to the Browns left them with a 3-3 mark, Roethlisberger strung together an impressive streak that saw him pass for over 300 yards in nine of their last 11 games, including outrageous performances against the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, throwing for 522 and 435, respectively.

But when it came down to the nitty gritty, their inability to run the ball in the playoffs doomed them to a one-and-done. At issue, of course, was the fact that the Steelers went into the game with the Ravens without their workhorse back Le'Veon Bell, who went down with knee injury in the season finale against the Bengals, but had been curiously ineffective for a couple of weeks before that.

Bell will also miss the opener at New England, as he is suspended for the game for violating the league's substance abuse policy.  Bell's absence affects both facets of the Steelers' offense, as he was the second leading receiver on the team last season behind All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, averaging six receptions a game for nearly 55 yards per contest.

Also suspended for the opener is speedy wide out Martavis Bryant, the second year phenom out of Clemson averaged a ridiculous 21 yards per reception in his rookie season but, like Bell, has a taste for the ganja, and will pay for it through the first four games of the season.

Their offense also took a legitimate hit in the preseason, as All Pro center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a broken ankle and fractured fibula and has been placed on the team's injured reserve list with a designation to return, leaving the pivot duties to journeyman center Cody Wallace, who held up admirably in spot starts backing up Pouncey last season, and will be flanked by offensive linemates who are all incumbent starters from last season.

Kelvin Beachum protects Roethlisberger's blind side and Marcus Gilbert returns at right tackle, while tough guys Ramon Foster and David Decastro join Wallace on the interior, all three grading out as top run blockers - but who will they be blocking for?

Carolina Panthers retread DeAngelo Williams is the only back of any consequence to replace Bell while he serves his suspension, while being backed up by Williams' former Panther teammate and change-of-pace back Jordan Todman. Second year back Dri Archer contributes next to nothing in the running game, but is clearly the team's third down back at this point.

Despite Bryant's absence, one place the Steelers are well stocked is at the pass catching positions, where they will provide a huge test for the Patriots' new-look secondary.

The lack of an effective running game will most likely place most of the production on Roethlisberger and his receivers, but with the Miami of Ohio product a burly, illusive and strong-armed presence in the pocket and out, and his pass catchers a speedy lot, the Steelers could find some success outside the numbers on Thursday night.

The speed and route running crispness of Brown (4.45), rookie Sammie Coates (4.43), third-year Oregon State product Markus Wheaton (4.40) and journeyman speed merchant (4.30) promise to stress the Patriots' corners, particularly Brown split wide and Wheaton coming out of the slot - but New England also must contend with durable and sneaky tight end Heath Miller, who was third on the team in receptions last season.

Belichick experimented with safety Devin McCourty returning to corner in the preseason in anticipation of a situation that the Patriots will find themselves in on Thursday night, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see McCourty as a dime back, playing the slot or double slot to account for the speed of the Steelers with either Pat Chung or rookie Jordan Richards inching up into the box to take on Miller, leaving third-year blue liner Duron Harmon to patrol the back end - and he will need to be on his toes to make sure none of those burners sneak behind him.

It is unclear whether Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick will utilize second-year corner Malcolm Butler or savvy eight-year veteran Tarell Brown on Pittsburgh's top target Antonio Brown, or if he will prefer to keep Butler on the left and Brown on the right, with either Bradley Fletcher or Logan Ryan in the slot - or maybe even McCourty.  But what is clear is that the best way to combat Pittsburgh's speed is to not allow Roethlisberger time to find his targets.

The Steelers' veteran line allowed 33 sacks last season on 641 dropbacks, an average of one sack every in every 20 chances, while the Patriots defense generated 40 sacks in 604 tries, or one sack for every 15 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks - and the New England pass rush has gotten even better - on paper, at least.

The probable passing down lineup for the Patriots is fearsome indeed, with second-year breakout candidate Dominique Easley flanking versatile and slippery rookie nose tackle Malcom Brown, and elite edge rushers Chandler Jones and Jaball Sheard looking for containment on Roethlisberger - and there is considerable depth along the line, so look for Belichick to substitute often in a rotation.

The defense's second level is among the best in football, as Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are all athletic, all purpose linebackers, with Collins the most versatile of them all. Collins can be found on Miller on some plays, while he and Hightower are excellent stunt masters who will try to take advantage of Pittsburgh's backup center on "A" gap blitzes.

Rob Ninkovich is in an interesting spot as Sheard has all but taken over his right defensive end position, allowing the Purdue product to become a dangerous chess piece in Belichick's second level.

What gives New England an advantage is that the Steelers just don't have the horses coming out of the backfield to contribute consistently in their passing game, and it remains to be seen if Williams can give them anything on the ground - if not, Belichick may opt to go man with his defensive backs and flood the box with pass rushers which, if successful, will force Pittsburgh to keep a tight end and a back in to pass protect, thereby limiting Roethlisberger's potential targets.

But the best way to keep Pittsburgh's prolific passing attack in check is to limit the time that they are actually on the field, which means that the Patriots' offense should be in four-minute mode - a bit of a tall task given lead back LeGarrette Blount is suspended for the game - but unlike the Steelers, Blount's absence is not as limiting.

With versatile Brandon Bolden the only true big back on the roster in Blount's stead, the Patriots may opt for two back sets, as they employ twin passing backs James White and Dion Lewis, both of whom are dangerous runners, be it up the gut or on wheel routes and screens curling out of the backfield - and this is particularly true against Pittsburgh's less-than-elite secondary.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amedola provide a potent one-two punch in the possession passing game, while oft-maligned Aaron Dobson give the team a field stretcher who actually had his best game as a pro against the Steelers in 2013, sneaking behind their secondary for a perfect bomb from Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady that he took 80 yards to the house.

A couple of wildcards that could test the Pittsburgh secondary are rookie free agent Chris Harper and passing back Travaris Cadet, who offers little in the running game and frequently lines up wide as a receiver in the pros, as he did in college - though Cadet may be inactive as he is still hobbled with a leg issue suffered early in training camp.

Greybeards Mike Mitchell and Will Allen will most likely get the start at the safety spots for Pittsburgh, while William Gay and Cortez Allen should start on the wings - not necessarily a lineup that puts the frighteners into opposing offensive coordinators, though things would be different if third-year safety Shamarko Thomas and fourth-year corner Antwon Blake were more consistent...

...but if New England struggles coming out of the gate with their passing game, it allows the Steelers to involve their linebackers in both the pass rush and in coverage, which flips the advantage to Pittsburgh's sideline.

Linebacker is where the Steelers are the most talented and deep on the defense. with Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones playing the wings and Lawrence Timmons and speedy-but-undersized Ryan Shazier patrolling the interior. Shazier has had plenty to say this week in regards to the Steeler's plans to slow down Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski - and, in truth, he may be the one player that Gronkowski sees on regular basis on Thursday night.

The second year player from Ohio State is more of a strong safety than a linebacker at 6' 2" and 230 pounds, but what sets him apart as a coverage 'backer is his 4.37 speed, meaning that he has the wheels to dominate running backs in the pattern and the speed and hops to stick with either Gronkowski or fellow tight end Scott Chandler up the seam.

Shazier is the key for the Pittsburgh defense against the dink and dunk attack that the Patriots' are likely to employ, as their screen game and getting the ball into the flat will be an extension of their running game.

Like Pittsburgh, New England is down to their second option at center on the offensive line, but unlike the Steelers, the rest of the line isn't loaded down with crusty veterans. Center Bryan Stork was placed on the IR with a designation to return, and the Patriots have a couple of options to replace him, either with veteran pivot Ryan Wendell or with undrafted rookie free agent David Andrews...

...though going with Wendell in that spot leaves at least one of the guard positions manned by a rookie. Both left guard Shaq Mason and right guard Tre Jackson are set to play in their first professional football game, and while both are noted drive blockers in the running game, it remains to be seen how they hold up against the Pittsburgh pass rush.

The Steelers weren't quite as productive in their pass rush in 2014 as in past seasons, netting just 33 sacks on the season, and have since lost their best rusher, linebacker Jason Worilds, to retirement, leaving strong side defensvie end Cameron Heyward and designated pass rush specialist James Harrison as the only true prolific sack artists on the team, though nose tackle Steve McLendon and blind side five-tech Stephon Tuitt have promise in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme.

In the end, both teams need to do the same things in order to win their season opener: Pressure the quarterbacks on defense and not let them get to their second reads, while on offense controlling the line of scrimmage and getting the running backs involved in the game plan is paramount...

...and with New England having a decided advantage in both areas, the defending champions should come away with a victory at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.

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