Patriots-Steelers Film Review: New England Uninterested In Run Defense


September 14, 2015

Ben Roethlisberger received the Peyton Manning treatment in the New England Patriots’ Week 1 win Thursday night.

The Patriots occasionally will completely ignore the running game when playing Manning, instead concentrating fully on defending the pass. The Patriots did just that against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and despite a few hiccups, it worked, resulting in a 28-21 win.

See why the Patriots’ front seven was pushed around in the run game and how cornerback Malcolm Butler fared against Steelers wideout Antonio Brown in this week’s film review:

— Tom Brady made it look easy, especially when targeting star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady smartly picked his spots with Gronkowski, and there were times when he seemed to lull the Steelers into forgetting to cover the All-Pro playmaker, who had three touchdowns.

— Gronkowski, at the top of the screen, is completely uncovered.

— Gronkowski is passed off to … no one on this deep route that he took 52 yards. The Steelers are lucky he didn’t score on this play.

— Brady was 3 of 6 on passes that traveled more than 15 yards. He also drew a 28-yard pass interference penalty on a deep target to wide receiver Julian Edelman. It was one of Brady’s better recent performances throwing deep.

— One of Brady’s deep incompletions was to slot receiver Danny Amendola midway through the first quarter on a wheel route. Brady overthrew Amendola, who was open thanks to a pick play by Edelman.

— They went back to a similar play midway through the second quarter, this time with Gronkowski running the pick. Amendola got open yet again from the slot, and this time Brady dropped it in right over his shoulder for 18 yards.

— Edelman didn’t show any rust as he took the game field for the first time since Super Bowl XLIX. Brady missed Edelman on just one target, and seven of the receiver’s 11 catches went for first downs.

— Running back Dion Lewis fumbled while attempting to gain extra yards after a catch and had a drop, but for the most part, he did his job as the Patriots’ third-down pass-catching back, catching four passes for 51 yards. He also showed versatility, lining up outside, where he caught three passes for 32 yards. His ability to play wide receiver will help the Patriots’ offense while Brandon LaFell is on the PUP list.

— Despite rotating the offensive line, and having three rookies within that cycle, Brady was protected well Thursday, taking a sack just twice.

— Starting left tackle Nate Solder, who was on the field for all but four plays, allowed just two hurries.

— Rookie center David Andrews went the distance and allowed a QB hit. The Patriots appear to be in good shape with Andrews while Bryan Stork is on short-term injured reserve.

— Swing tackle Marcus Cannon, who played 23 total snaps, gave up a sack while in for Solder on the blind side. He should have kept his head on a swivel to see safety Will Allen blitzing.

— Lewis was charged with the second sack. It appeared he should have bumped rookie pass rusher Bud Dupree before going out in his route.

— The Patriots played the following combinations on their OL:

LT: Solder
LG: Josh Kline
C: Andrews
RG: Tre’ Jackson
RT: Sebastian Vollmer

LT: Solder
LG: Shaq Mason
C: Andrews
RG: Kline
RT: Vollmer

LT: Solder
LG: Kline
C: Andrews
RG: Jackson
RT: Cannon

LT: Cannon
LG: Mason
C: Andrews
RG: Kline
RT: Vollmer

LT: Solder
LG: Mason
C: Andrews
RG: Jackson
RT: Vollmer

— The Patriots also used tight end Michael Williams as an extra blocker on 15 plays.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-protection stats.

— Lewis doesn’t need much of a hole to find room to run. He wound up with 69 yards on 15 carries. He showed off his agility on an impressive 13-yard run, juking two defenders and nearly breaking free for another. He had help from pulling guard Mason, who wisely chose to plow through a linebacker, not a cornerback or safety on the lead block. Right tackle Vollmer also showed off his impressive athleticism, getting to the second level and helping create a crease through which Lewis could gain extra yards.

— Brandon Bolden didn’t show much as the Patriots’ goal-line back, receiving two carries for no gain on the 1-yard line. Mason, playing fullback, didn’t help, as he wasn’t able to get a push on his lead block.

— The thought of Mason playing fullback actually came to me before the game, because I was thinking of how the Patriots used to use guard Donald Thomas in that role. Mason is smaller and a better athlete, but they had similar testing numbers coming out of college. If Mason can improve his technique, he could find a role at fullback with starter James Develin out for the season with a broken leg.


— The Patriots have plenty of athleticism up front with Mason, Kline, Andrews, Solder and Vollmer, but they struggled to get a strong push up the middle, as evidenced by their lack of success running near the goal line. Having a bigger, more talented back like LeGarrette Blount could help in short-yardage situations, but the Patriots are at their best pulling and blocking at the second level. Jackson isn’t quite as athletic as the rest of the Patriots’ offensive linemen, but there’s hope with improved technique that he can be more of a mauling offensive lineman, who can create holes in the run game with his strength.

— The Patriots’ lack of strength up front probably won’t improve when captain Ryan Wendell, who also is on the smaller side, is ready to play, but getting Stork back should help. Until then, they might need to rely on smaller backs like Lewis, James White and Travaris Cadet to gain yards on the ground.

— Usually letting up 134 yards on 25 carries to a team without their star running back and center would be cause for panic, but it’s not after Thursday night’s game. Here’s why: The Patriots showed absolutely no interest in stopping the run. The Patriots’ three 300-pounders — Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga — played just 62 total snaps out of 73 defensive plays. The Patriots were using three defensive ends on nearly every play, and sometimes they would revert to their NASCAR set with four defensive ends. The Patriots were essentially surrendering against the run and focusing all of their attention on the pass.

— The Patriots’ plan hit a speed bump when Dominique Easley suffered a hip injury eight plays into the game. With Rufus Johnson and Trey Flowers inactive, that forced 252-pound rookie Geneo Grissom to play 29 snaps, mostly at defensive tackle and five-technique defensive end. Grissom, understandably, was pushed around in the middle in the run game. By using smaller bodies up front, Brown, Branch and Siliga were forced to take on more double teams, and there wasn’t a space-filler next to them clog up rushing lanes. This put more pressure on the Patriots’ linebackers to stuff the run.

— Defensive end Rob Ninkovich had some rare rough moments while setting the edge on the left side. Linebacker Jamie Collins also had some issues with missed tackles and being blocked out at the second level.

— Newly signed edge defender Jabaal Sheard continued to show he’s a strong run defender. He made a rare miscue midway through the second quarter, however, when on first and 10, he missed a tackle while setting the left edge.

— He made up for it on the next play, when he stacked and shed his offensive lineman to make a 1-yard run stuff.

— If there’s anything to be concerned about defensively, it’s the pass rush. The Patriots went small along their front seven, playing three defensive ends, one defensive tackle, two linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks in their base defense with the intention of primarily defending the pass. They rarely blitzed, however, and weren’t able to get consistent pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite recording three sacks.

— Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was his usual consistently productive self in the passing game, recording a sack and a hurry despite limited opportunities as a rusher. Center Cody Wallace was no match for Hightower.

— The Patriots attempted to confuse the Steelers by showing varied looks up front, sometimes rushing a linebacker up the middle and having an edge player, usually Ninkovich, drop into coverage.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-rush stats.

— All eyes were on Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and Steelers top receiver Antonio Brown in the NFL Kickoff game. Brown certainly got the best of Butler, but the cornerback had competitive moments.

I charted all of Brown’s targets:
1. Brown caught a bubble screen for 9 yards.
2. Brown ran a comeback route and made a 10-yard catch despite blanketed coverage by Butler

3. Brown ran another screen and picked up 3 yards.
4. Roethlisberger rushed an incomplete deep pass to Brown with Butler in tight coverage.
5. Brown ran a 5-yard slant.
6. Butler, lined up in the slot, tried to jam Brown and missed. Brown beat Butler badly and caught a deep pass for 37 yards.
7. Brown lost Butler on a stop-and-go route down the left sideline for 33 yards.
8. Brown escaped Butler on a drag route with help from Steelers wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, who bumped the cornerback. The play went for 12 yards.
9. The Patriots were in a Cover-2, and Butler bumped then passed Brown off to Tarell Brown on a slant route. The pass fell incomplete as Brown got happy feet with Collins looming in the middle of the field.
10. Butler just missed a pass breakup as Brown made a 13-yard reception on a deep-in route.
11. Butler just missed another pass deflection on a deep-out route from Brown in the end zone. Brown scored on the 11-yard completion.

Butler prevented one completion and had solid coverage on three more targets. He was helpless to allow receptions on two screens and would have needed a Super Bowl-miracle play on a slant route. He also was beat handedly on three consecutive receptions. In total, Butler gave up nine catches on 10 targets, including one to Markus Wheaton in zone coverage, for 142 yards and a touchdown.

Butler showed the most difficulty covering Brown in the slot, on the 37-yard catch and on a stop-and-go route that went for 33 yards. Butler’s numbers would have looked a lot better if he had made one or two pass breakups.

All in all, Butler struggled, but it’s completely understandable as he was thrust into the starting role against the NFL’s best. He should have much more success against lesser wideouts.

— Tarell Brown was very solid in his first regular season game with the Patriots. He was beat by a step on a target to Wheaton, but the Steelers receiver had the ball pass through his fingers.

— Bradley Fletcher was beat down the sideline on a 43-yard pass to Heyward-Bey, but he also looked solid in coverage. On one play, the Patriots appeared to be in Cover-2, and Fletcher passed Wheaton off to McCourty in the end zone. Wheaton sat in the end zone uncovered and caught a deep pass from Roethlisberger, but his foot was out of bounds. The Patriots caught a lucky break.

— Duron Harmon covered a lot of ground on an interception that helped seal the game for the Patriots. It also helped that it was a poor throw from Roethlisberger.

— Harmon spent most of the game at free safety or playing beside McCourty in the deep half of the field. Patrick Chung mostly played a hybrid linebacker role as Jerod Mayo took a backseat.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-coverage stats.

Thumbnail photo via Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Sep 10, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) runs the ball against the New England Patriots during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
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