FThe New England Patriots lost their fourth game of the 2018 season with a heartbreaking 34-33 loss last Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. New England will now have to go on the road to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh this week for a chance to wrap-up their tenth consecutive AFC East title.
The Patriots lost their fourth game of the season–all on the road. The consistent factor in all four of those losses has been the defense–or more specifically the lack of it. In their four losses the Patriots have been outscored 125 to 73 (-52). In their nine wins they have outscored opponents 291 to 168 (+123).
The New England defense has allowed an average of 31.25 points in their four losses on the road. In their nine victories they have allowed opponents just 18.66 points per game. The New England offense has managed just an average of 18.25 points in their four losses while averaging 32.33 points per game in their nine victories.
New England never got consistent play on both sides of the ball and were unable to put away a plucky Miami Dolphins team in the South Florida heat. On defense, the Patriots allowed 189 yards rushing on just 21 carries, allowing Miami a whopping 9.0 yards per rush.
This week the Patriots have another tough road game–going to Heinz Field to face the dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers. On defense, the Steelers have a host of impact players. Cameron Heyward is one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the game while nose tackle Javon Hargrave has quietly had a great season. T.J. Watt brings the pressure from the edge (10 sacks) and cornerback Joe Haden (a team leading 10 passes defended) anchors the secondary.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. As this game is the Nationally televised game in the second broadcast slot, Patriots fans will be spared from Dan Fouts on the broadcast. CBS’ top broadcasting du will handle the game with Jim Nantz handling play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and local talk radio personality Scott “Zo” Zolak adding his unique brand of color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The loss over the Dolphins was the fourth time in 2018 that the New England defense allowed an opponent to score 30 or fewer points–three of those four games have been losses for the Patriots. This week they have the challenge of Ben Roethlisberger, Juju Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, and possibly James Connor.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season but the Miami loss brings up the same questions again regarding lack of pass rush, problems in the running game, and allowing big plays (at inopportune times). The defense is now out of the top ten in the NFL in points allowed after the “Meltdown in Miami”.
The defense is 12th in points allowed (293) and 22nd in yards allowed. The defense was actually very good on third downs (Miami was only one of seven in conversions) and they are now up to 22nd in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 40.% of the time (66 of 163).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against arguably the top wide receiver duo in the NFL (are Smith-Schuster and Brown better than Thielen and Diggs in Minnesota? Flip a coin!) and the tough-to-beat-at-home Pittsburgh Steelers?
SECONDARY NEEDS TO STEP UP:
The New England Patriots have a huge challenge in front of them on Sunday going on the road to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been neck-and-neck with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in passing yards. While Roethlisberger has 13 interceptions in 13 games, he also has thrown for 28 touchdowns.
The passing offense in Pittsburgh runs through their dynamic duo of wide receivers. Antonio Brown is one the best in the game and has 86 catches for 1,063 yards and a dozen touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster has been even better as a sophomore as he has piled up 91 receptions for 1,234 yards and six touchdowns.
The Patriots are obviously–like all teams–try to take those two options away from Roethlisberger. After their showing in Miami last week, there is not a lot of confidence that New England is capable of doing so despite having done a great job of shutting down Minnesota;s dynamic duo of Stephon Diggs and Adam Thielen two weeks ago.
Look for New England to match-up Stephon Gilmore on Smith-Schuster to try and match his size and athleticism. The smaller Brown should see plenty of J.C. Jackson or Jason McCourty depending who gets the start. Last week Kenny Stills lit-up McCourty and Jackson–who had a big role versus Minnesota–stepped up in the second half.
New England has used Jackson and McCourty at times in the slot and also have Jonathan Jones. Some day, Duke Dawson may be active Whoever ends up at slot receiver may have a challenge this week as Eli Rogers returns from the PUP list and replaces Ryan Switzer–who has just 30 receptions for 224 yards on the season.
Safeties Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty will have a big role in the game as well. The Steelers have two very effective receiving tight ends in Vance McDonald and Jesse James. James and McDonald have combined for 73 receptions on 97 targets for 923 yards and five touchdowns. New England has struggled in coverage versus tight ends at times and their safeties need to be strong in coverage.
The Patriots will likely catch a break and not have to face running back James Conner due to injury. Conner had 52 receptions for 467 yards in a dozen games and has basically functioned as the third receiver in the Pittsburgh offense. Without Conner, keep an eye on rookie running back Jaylen Samuels who was an undersized tight end at North Carolina State before being drafted in the fifth round and being used as a running back.
No one has stopped the Steelers’ passing attack in 2018. The Baltimore Ravens slowed them early in the season and on occasion Roethlisberger has accumulated numerous interceptions in a game. Other than those occasions, Pittsburgh has matriculated the ball up and down the field with little opposition much of the season.
It is a tough match-up for the Patriots, but they must find a way to slow Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers with creative schemes, solid fundamentals and excellent individual play.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against Pittsburgh’s offense this week:
SLOW THE RUN:
It may be time to give up on the idea of the Patriots’ defense figuring out how to stop a running game after Minnesota and Miami ran all over New England–at this point they need to find a way to just slow down their opponents to a respectable level. The Patriots are just 15th in rushing yards allowed, but 27th in rushing yards allowed per attempt with 4.9 yards per rush.
The Patriots catch a break with James Conner injured. The Steelers’ second-year running back has ably replaced holdout Le’veon Bell. Steelers rookie Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley combined for just 32 yards on 11 carries against Oakland last week. The Steelers abandoned had to run when Roethlisberger left the game when he injured his ribs but clearly were not planning to pound the ball without Conner.
After the Patriots poor performance against the run (and likely focusing on the trying to stop the passing game) the Steelers may take a shot at running the ball early and see if they can duplicate the success of other teams.
The glass half-full crowd would say that the Patriots gave up a 54 yard and 36 yard run and they allowed a more respectable 19 rushes for 99 yards (five yards per rush) subtracting those two runs. The problem is those rushes count and five yards per rush allowed is still lousy.
The defensive line (particularly Malcom Brown) have struggled to stay strong in the middle of the defense and Danny Shelton was so bad he was a healthy scratch the past two weeks. Lawrence Guy has been the best interior defender against the run along with linebacker Elandon Roberts.
Setting the edge on the outside has been an issue as well. Adrian Clayborn is primarily a third-down rusher with younger players Deitrich Wise and Keionta Davis along with newcomer John Simon taking turns on the edge opposite Trey Flowers on early downs. Their inexperience has been an issue and begs the question why the highly-paid Clayborn has played 50% of the snaps just once in 2018.
If the Patriots are saving Clayborn, this must-win game against their primary AFC rivals may be the time to unleash him. If the Patriots are run over by a converted tight end and a journeyman running back they discarded years ago, they deserve the loss.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: Take away the dynamic duo at wide receiver (easier said than done) and limit the mistakes that create big plays for opposing offenses. New England has to impact the banged-up Steelers’ running game and make them one-dimensional.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01