New England Patriots Week 15 Preview: Offensive Strategy vs Pittsburgh Steelers

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FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 16: James White #28 of the New England Patriots celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium on August 16, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

The 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 offense, the New England running game sputtered gaining 77 yards on 30 carries for just 2.6 yards per rush (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).

This week the Patriots have another tough road game–going to Heinz Field to face the dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two star wide receivers in Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster making for a dangerous offense (particularly if running back James Conner returns).

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 offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.

The loss against the Dolphins was the first game of the season the Patriots scored 24 points or more and lost. The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three is now sixth in the NFL with 364 points scored in 13 games.

Coming out of week three, New England ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots climbed back into the top ten converting 42.3% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage was a problem again last week against Miami and is now just 61.7% (29 of 47 drives) is good for a middle-of-the-pack 15th in the NFL.

How do the Patriots plan to maintain their offensive momentum against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is loaded with talented defensive players and in a must-win game at home?

PAGING JAMES WHITE:

For weeks one through twelve James White was the leading receiver for the Patriots. Last week against Miami, White had just 33 snaps on offense having on the field for just 40.7% of the offensive snaps, his lowest total of the season.

White had just two reception on four targets for 15 yards. Inexplicably, in the second half of the game while the offense stalled out on all four drives (missed field goal, punt, field goal, and field goal) White was targeted just once in the passing game. With a team-leading 103 targets and 74 receptions coming into the Miami game, his lack of playing time, targets and role in the offense was inexcusable.  

Patriots running back James White (photo credit: Boston Globe)

White lost snaps as the Patriots worked Rex Burkhead into the offense having him play specific series.The force-feeding of Burkhead negatively affected the offense in two ways: first, it cut into the snaps of White depriving the Patriots of a running back who had seven receptions for 92 yards the week before against the VIkings; second, it kept rookie running back Sony Michel from getting into rhythm.

While wanting Burkhead in rhythm by the playoffs makes sense on one level, New England also needs to take care of business. Taking snaps away from White and Michel where the duo had been in rhythm is dangerous. While it did not cost them the game last week (blame the defense), it did not help when the offense went into neutral.

The Patriots will have to take advantage of James White against the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. White has just four reception on eight targets for forty yards in regular season games against Pittsburgh in the past two season, In the AFC Championship game after the 2016 season, White had just three catches on four targets for eight yards.

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Of course, a lot of that attention paid to White by the Steelers involved linebacker Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. With Timmons having left in free agency and Shazier retiring due to a spinal injury, those duties fall to veteran Vince Williams, L.J. Fort and now former Bears and Patriots linebacker Jonathan Bostic. Williams is more of a blitzer and run-stopper while Bostic has struggled with coverage of tight ends and running backs. Last week the Steelers went to Fort for much of the game in an attempt to slow the Raiders passing attack.

For the offense to be at its best, it requires James White as an integral part of the game plan again. New England will need their offense at peak efficiency on Sunday, but James White against any Pittsburgh linebacker in coverage should be a huge match-up in favor of the Patriots.

That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must keep the momentum of the productive receivers in the passing game:

MORE “BIG THREE”:

After three straight games failing to score 30 points (and four of their last five games), the New England Patriots’ offense put up 33 points on the Miami Dolphins. However, the New England offense left at least seven points on the field due to a missed extra point and field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski and then Tom Brady taking a sack before halftime when the team would have had a short field goal if he had thrown the ball away.

One positive from last Sunday was the passing offense getting the “Big Three” involved. The three nearly each had 100 yards receiving each: Rob Gronkowski had eight receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown, Josh Gordon had five receptions for 96 yards and Julian Edelman had nine catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.

Nov 25, 2018; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) catches a touchdown pass in front of New York Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne (21) during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That was in stark contrast to the match-up with the Vikings the week prior. Gronkowski, Gordon and Edelman combined for just nine receptions for 109 yards and one touchdown. Getting the trio involved in the offense was a key point going into the game and paid off with a return to a productive passing attack.

Of course, the Patriots need to keep a ferocious pass rush off the receivers first and foremost. Led by T.J. Watt, Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree, the Steelers have the ability to create consistent pressure up front. Mix in their varied and frequent blitzes from anyone anywhere on the field and it is no surprise that they have racked up an NFL-high 45 sacks this season.

The Steelers need the pass rush to get to the quarterback to help their secondary. Cornerback Joe Haden is their best cornerback by far as Coty Sensabaugh has been average at best. Sensabaugh is starting because 2016 first round draft pick Artie Burns was benched. He did not even play on defense at all last week against Oakland.

Reports out of Pittsburgh indicate the Steelers may replace Sensabaugh with Burns this week against the Patriots. Also, slot cornerback Mike Hilton has struggled in the past few weeks and gave up the game-winning touchdown last week. It also appears that Cam Sutton–a third round draft pick last year–could step in and be involved in covering Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon when he lines up in the slot.

The Steelers struggled to cover tight end Jared Cook last week in Oakland as the veteran had seven receptions for 116 yards. The Steelers played L.J. Fort at linebacker to have a more athletic linebacker to help in coverage. It did not work. Fort, rookie strong safety and top draft pick Terrell Edmunds, and former Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett were tasked with stopping Cook and it did not work.

The Steelers secondary is in flux as they look for options in trying to save their season after three consecutive losses. In the past two weeks, the pass defense was exposed by the Chargers and Raiders. Now, the Patriots will try to test that revamped secondary and keep Pittsburgh in a tailspin.

If the offense can re-incorporate running back James White back into the offense and have their “big three” of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon continue their strong play, the Patriots should be able to extend drives and keep the dangerous Steelers’ offense on the sidelines while piling up points on the scoreboard.  

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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