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 offense. New England lost their starting left tackle for the second consecutive year. Trent Brown took his Super Bowl ring to Oakland signing the richest contract for a tackle one season after Nate Solder went to New York signing with the Giants for what was then the richest contract ever for a tackle.
The Patriots also lost tight end future Hall-of-Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski to retirement. In addition, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and wide receiver Chris Hogan were not retained. Tight end Dwayne Allen departed in free agency as well.
New England has last year’s first round draft pick (tackle Isaiah Wynn) to help pick up the slack on the offensive line. Already, the offensive line lost starting center David Andrews. Blood clots in his lungs led Andrews to injured reserve and will not play this season. Back-up Ted Karras is expected to fill-in at center.
The Patriots had wide receiver Josh Gordon reinstated by the Commissioner’s office and the Patriots scooped up five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Demaryius Thomas off the scrap heap. They added other free agents at tight end (Matt LaCosse, Lance Kendricks and Ben Watson) and undrafted free agents (Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers). Tight ends Kendricks (one game) and Watson (four games) are suspended to start the season.
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 offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.
The Patriots’ offense was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three of the 2018 season. However, the unit ended the season ranked fourth in scoring offense with 27.3 points per game and 436 points. They were fifth in yards with 6,295 and averaged 5.9 yards per play (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
The balanced offensive attack showed in the final stats. The offense was eighth in passing yards with 4,258 yards and sixth in net yards gained per attempt at 7.2 (passing yards minus sack yards per pass attempts and total sacks). On the ground, the Patriots rushed for 2,037 yards (fifth in the NFL), their highest total since 2013.
Coming out of week three, the New England offense ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots finished 13th in the NFL converting 40.8% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage was a problem all season. New England finished 15th in the league at 59.6% (34 of 57 drives).
In the playoffs, however, New England piled up 78 points on 1,022 yards with almost 700 yards passing and over 300 yards on the ground in two games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. While the Rams held the Patriots to just 13 points in Super Bowl 53, the Patriots gained over 400 yards with over 250 passing yards and 150 yards on the ground in a balanced attack.
How does New England get the offense on the right track in 2019 against a ferocious Pittsburgh defense?
The main question around the New England Patriots’ offense in 2019 is going to be the offensive line. For the third consecutive season there is a new left tackle. Beyond that turnover at such a vital position is the gaping hole in the middle of the offensive line. With starting center David Andrews on injured reserve, the Patriots will have a tough assignment to protect quarterback Tom Brady.
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Pittsburgh sacked opposing quarterbacks 52 times in 2018. While T.J. Watt led the way with 13 sacks, the Steelers had five other players with at least 4.5 sacks in 2018. However, in the NFL Draft this spring Pittsburgh stuck gold at tenth overall after trading up and grabbing Michigan linebacker Devin Bush.
Bush will have a key role in the running game and dropping into zone coverage, but the Steelers got him to be that interior blitzer that the defense has missed since Ryan Shazier wreaked havoc on opposing defenses. With the pass rush ability he showed at Michigan, Bush should be a huge upgrade over Jonathan Bostic at inside linebacker.
The only question is if the Steelers will play free agent acquisition Mark Barron ahead of him on earlier downs and bring Bush in for passing downs.
In addition, interior defensive tackle Cameron Heyward remains a force in the passing game and is likely licking his lips in anticipation of not having to face Andrews on Sunday night. With eight sacks last season and 45 career sacks, Heyward is a disruptive force in the middle of the defense.
For the Patriots, the pressure is on backup center (who is now the starting center) Ted Karras. While Karras has been primarily at center much of the preseason, New England traded for Bills veteran center Russell Bodine. Bodine was released this week and James Ferentz was brought back to serve as the backup going forward.
Karras is not responsible just for blocking in the passing game and run game, but he is responsible for making the blocking calls at the line and any adjustments. With a blitz-happy defensive coordinator in Keith Butler in Pittsburgh, expect him to send Bush and others up the middle early and often to test how Karras reacts in the middle of the offensive line.
Of course, New England also has a new left tackle in Isaiah Wynn. Wynn was the first of the Patriots’ 2018 first round draft picks and missed all of last season due to a torn Achilles. Wynn missed much of the offseason camps before being cleared and playing in the preseason.
With Wynn on the left side, the Steelers will send speed rusher Bud Dupree (who appears recovered from a preseason hand/thumb injury) at Wynn. With Watt facing off on the offensive right side (defensive left side) against right tackle Marcus Cannon, Wynn gets his first test against one of the speediest pass rushers in the league.
For the Patriots, look for the usual quick-strike attack to slow the Steelers’ pass rush. Quick passes to Julian Edelman, running back James White out of the backfield, and using the running game to force the Steelers defense into match-ups favorable to the offense.
There is one other thing the New England offense needs to do on Sunday night to outscore the Steelers.
RUNNING BACK CENTRIC:
For the Patriots on Sunday night, the running game and short passing game will likely feature heavily in their offense. Look for Sony Michel and James White to play their usual key roles toting the rock and in the passing game respectively. Being the Patriots, dual-threat Rex Burkhead will get his playing time and maybe rookie Damien Harris as well.
New England was out-of-sorts on offense against the Steelers on the road in December last season (and the Pittsburgh defense played well–particularly on third down). There were too many holding penalties on the offensive line (credit the Steelers front seven) and although giving up just one sack, it was the constant pressure generated that forced the game-changing interception in the red zone.
New England ran the ball well–and despite the game being close–gave up on the running game in the second and fourth quarters after having success. Sony Michel had 59 yards on 13 carries and the team ran for 94 yards on just 19 carries but passed the ball almost twice as much (37 attempts, not counting penalties).
The three offensive holding penalties (ten total accepted penalties as a team) were a key reason for having to throw the ball being in second-and-long multiple times. The New England offense allowed the Steelers’ defense set the tone and style of the game and were not able to assert their will and game plan onto their opponent.
Expect a different game plan on Sunday night. The Patriots will–as they did after the Steelers game in their next five wins including the Super Bowl–not abandon the running game. Especially with questions in the passing game beyond White and Edelman in the passing game, the Patriots need to be able to run the football effectively against the strong front seven of the Steelers.
The running backs failed to make an impact in the passing game as Michel was not targeted and Burkhead and White combined for eight receptions on ten targets but for only 43 yards. The running backs need to play a larger role to clear out the middle of the field by attracting defenders and making plays on the periphery of the defense despite the speed of the Steelers’ linebackers.
The New England offense must integrate the young newcomers to the line-up in the offensive line and slow a strong Steelers’ pass rush. In addition, the running game must extend drives and the running backs must contribute to the passing game to disrupt the Steelers’ defense.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01