New England Patriots Game Preview: Defensive Strategy Game One vs Pittsburgh Steelers

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Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; NFL New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks (12) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks (12) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots enter the 2019 season coming off their third Super Bowl victory in the past five NFL seasons. With four trips to the Super Bowl in the last five years, ten consecutive AFC East championships and eight consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have cemented their legacy as the greatest dynasty in the 100 years of NFL history.

Of course, none of that past success matters as the Patriots enter a new season. There was significant turnover in the offseason once again on defense. New England lost the versatility, pass rush and run-stuffing ability of defensive end Trey Flowers. Flowers packed-up his pair of Super Bowl rings to join former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. 

To replace Flowers’ pass rush, the Patriots sent a late-round draft pick to Philadelphia for 33 year old Michael Bennett. Bennett may be eight years older than Flowers, but he is versatile as well, being able to line up anywhere on the defensive line. He is technically-sound and a pass rushing force that forces opponents to account for him every time he steps on the field.

The Patriots maintained much of their defense bringing back veteran defensive tackle Danny Shelton and keeping cornerback Jason McCourty on inexpensive, short-term deals. Tackle Malcom Brown left in free agency but New England expects an upgrade with more from young defensive tackle Adam Butler and rookie Byron Cowart.

The Patriots deep linebacking group gets last year’s preseason star Ja’Whaun Bentley back and also brought back old friend Jamie Collins to add to the already strong depth at the position. The draft restocked an already ridiculously deep secondary with second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams joining four starting-quality cornerbacks.

This season’s opening game is on Sunday night rather than the traditional Thursday night for the Super Bowl champions as the NFL celebrates its 100th season. 

The opener for 2019 will be broadcast by NBC and can be seen locally on NBC 10 Boston or, if in the Providence area, WJAR NBC 10. The usual Sunday Night Football crew returns in 2019 with Al Michaels on play-by-play duties and Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya returns to provide analysis from the sidelines. 

On the radio, Sunday night’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Kugler will call the game with former Miami Dolphins’ star pass rusher Jason Taylor providing analysis. Locally, 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network and all of the network’s 38 stations carry the game live. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who provides his own unique 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.

The New England defense finished 2018 strong holding the potent Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to just 17 points, the hapless Buffalo Bills’ offense to just 12 points (and the only Buffalo touchdown came with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores) and the New York Jets managed just a field goal in week 17. 

In the playoffs, the Chargers scored on a defensive breakdown on the first drive but the Chargers did not score again until it was 38-7. The Chiefs scored 31 points but only seven through three quarters. The Rams managed only a field goal in Super Bowl 53.

The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season after a rough start. The defense held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their last six games following their bye week. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed before giving up 34 points to Tennessee in week ten and 34 to Miami in week 14. 

The Patriots finished the season seventh in points allowed although the defense was 21st in total yards allowed. The defense was 22nd in passing yards allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, they were 29th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowing teams to rush for an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. In the playoffs they clamped down holding the Chargers to just 19 yards, Kansas City to 41 yards and the Rams only 62 yards on the ground.

The defense was excellent on third downs in November and December and finished the season 16th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 38.6% of the time (76 of 197). The New England defense was 16th in the red zone allowing teams to score 58.7% of the time (27 touchdowns on 46 trips). 

How do the Patriots plan to continue their strong defensive momentum in 2019?

BALANCED APPROACH:

The 2018 match-up in Pittsburgh saw the Patriots employing a dime defense for much of the game and focusing on slowing Pittsburgh wide receivers and daring the Steelers to run the ball with Jaylen Samuels as James Conner was inactive with an ankle injury. The plan slowed the passing game but Samuels hasd 1432 yards rushing on just 19 carries. 

Without Antonio Brown, it is unlikely the Patriots have any interest in staying in their dime defense all game. JuJu Smith-Shuster and James Washington are now the key passing game targets on the outside while Vance McDonald no longer has Jesse James to team with him at tight end. 

Without Brown to worry about, the Patriots have more options on defense to align their cornerbacks and secondary and focus on slowing the Steelers’ rushing attack.

James Conner will be in the lead back role and is a weapon rushing and receiving having gained 973 yards with a dozen touchdowns rushing in just 13 games. Through the air, Conner had almost 500 yards receiving on 55 catches.

New England has a deep front seven and how they are aligned–particularly in the base defense–is something to watch for in 2019. For most of the first decade of the Patriots Dynasty New England ran a 3-4 base defense. In 2011, the Patriots moved to a 4-3 base defense and have been in that look ever since.

It is important to note that the Patriots usually are in a sub-defense (Nickel and Dime) between 60 to 70% of the time so the base defense is not utilized much of the game. However, with the influx of talent at linebacker and the 3-4 look displayed in training camp and in the preseason, it appears the Patriots are “Back to the Future” with four linebackers on the field in their base defense.

Part of the reason for the switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 was the inability to find linebackers who fit the scheme. Now there is sufficient depth. Starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower are Swiss army knives who can play inside and outside with equal acumen. Prodigal son Jamie Collins appears to be deployed in the same way in 2019.

At inside linebacker, the Patriots have fourth-year player and first time team captain Elandon Roberts. In addition, last season’s early surprise Ja’Whaun Bentley is back to full strength. Bentley–a thumper in the running game–was a surprise with his ability in pass coverage last season.

On the edge, holdovers Deatrich Wise and John Simon are joined by newcomers Shilique Calhoun and rookie Chase Winovich. With new addition Michael Bennett expected to be a 3-4 defensive end along with the versatile Lawrence Guy, this quartet will have a key role in generating pass rush and holding the edge when in run defense.

These versatile linebackers should allow the Patriots to spend less time in the nickel defense and focus on stopping the run on early downs and make their opponents one-dimensional.

There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against the Steelers:

LIMIT THE PASSING GAME:

The Patriots have one major advantage on defense they did not have against the Steelers in the past: they no longer have to match-up and try to slow Antonio Brown. For all his off-field issues, Brown was one of the best wide receivers in the entire league and was the focus of the defensive game planning.

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 17: Duron Harmon #30 of the New England Patriots intercepts a pass thrown by Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fourth quarter during the game at Heinz Field on December 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Last year the Patriots were in dime defense much of the game and matched top cornerback Stephon Gilmore primarily on Brown. That led New England to put JC Jackson on Juju Smith-Shuster, Jason McCourty on James Washington and James Jones on Eli Rogers. What really stood out in that match-up was the role of Patrick Chung–despite giving up a touchdown–blanketing Vance McDonald much of the game.

The Steelers pulled the plug on Brown and Eli Rogers and imported Donte Moncrief and expect a bigger role out of former Cowboys slot receiver Ryan Switzer. Moncrief is a big receiver who had a touchdown reception against the Patriots last season while he was a Colt and Switzer has been in the news this week as the diminutive jitterbug has spoken to the media of his desire to emulate the game of Julian Edelman.

Freeing Gilmore from Brown gives the Patriots the option of having Gilmore lock-down Washington and have the veteran McCourty take on Moncrief (or have McCourty take Washington as he did last season). Smith-Schuster struggled against JC Jackson last season and should see plenty of him again. If the Patriots can keep these passing targets under control it goes a long way to stopping the Steelers’ offense.

Patrick Chung will see plenty of tight end Vance McDonald again. Chung has not played since breaking his arm in the Super Bowl and may be rusty. This could lead to rookie Joejuan Williams in coverage of McDonald. The six-foot-four rookie has the size to match-up against tight ends in addition to big receivers and could see some playing time covering up McDonald and possibly Moncrief.

The other part of stopping the passing game is generating pressure. The Steelers have arguably the best and most consistent offensive lines in the NFL. New England had just one sack and a couple of pressures generating a pass rush via their blitzing with blitzing linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and Lawrence Guy (interior) getting occasional pressure and struggling to get any pass rush from the edge rushers. 

To stop the run game and slow the passing attack of the Steelers, the Patriots must win their match-ups in the secondary, lock-down Vance McDonald and get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger somehow.

The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: blanket the Antonio Brown-less Steelers’ wide receivers and game plan for dangerous tight end McDonald. Throw out last year’s “dime defense all the time” and have the deep linebacker group make an impact stopping the running game and generating pressure. That game plan for 2019 starts on Sunday night. 

 

-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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