Everything about the Patriots feels better following a 17-14 victory over the Steelers on Sunday.
Although producing 17 points on offense is merely a starting point and not an end goal, Sunday's offensive performance felt more like laying a foundation than a shaky outing in Miami.
New England's rushing attack looked as good as it has since the beginning of camp, running out the clock with a 13-play, 6:33 drive. In the passing game, the Patriots and quarterback Mac Jones exposed a two-year trend that could impact how defenses game plan the Pats offense.
Heading into Week 2, only five quarterbacks have dropped back to pass against man coverage more than Mac Jones over the last two seasons. Furthermore, Jones faced man coverage on a league-high 35 percent of his drop-backs in his rookie season because teams wanted extra defenders in the box to stop the run and didn't fear New England's playmakers on the outside.
On Jones's 198 drop-backs against man coverage a year ago, the Pats QB averaged just 6.9 yards per pass attempt (21st) and 79.2 passer rating (23rd out of 35 quarterbacks). To put it frankly, the results weren't very good.
With former Patriots assistant Brian Flores on the other sideline, Pittsburgh tested Jones and company by playing man coverage on 53 percent of the Pats drop-backs (21 of 40). The typically zone-heavy Steelers primary coverage was cover-one man on 19 drop-backs, nine more snaps than any other coverage scheme (cover-two, ten plays).
This time, Mac and the Pats receivers averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt with a 44-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor and a passer rating of 96.7 against the Steelers man coverages.
Defenses will need to see it more than once to change their philosophy. But New England showed it could make opponents pay for sitting in man coverage this season.
The Patriots opening drive that resulted in a field goal was made possible by New England giving Flores a taste of his own medicine. Knowing they'd see cover-one, the Pats attacked out-leveraged defenders in man coverage on crossing routes.
Here, the Pats put Steelers linebacker Myles Jack in conflict (#51). Jack is playing a low robber role where he's providing help to the middle of the field. New England runs Nelson Agholor on a crosser, and Kendrick Bourne follows him on a dig pattern. Jack can't help both in-breaking routes, so when he stays put to leverage Bourne's route, Mac throws to an open Agholor.
The Patriots also gave receivers space to work on dig routes with levels and dagger concepts.
In this play, they ran dagger, where two inside vertical routes cleared out the coverage for a dig pattern breaking from the outside receiver. The Steelers are in cover-two man, and the inside verticals clear out the deep safeties, and Jakobi Meyers makes a strong catch against single coverage to move the chains on third down.
Lastly, the Patriots hit Agholor on his 44-yard touchdown by stressing a single-high structure once again.
This time, the Patriots ran their version of the 989 concept with verticals on the outside and an inside crosser from tight end Hunter Henry. The Steelers rotate into a cover-one robber scheme after starting with two deep safeties, and the post-safety shades towards Henry's crossing pattern, leaving Agholor one-on-one with Akhello Witherspoon on the perimeter. Mac gives Agholor a chance to make a play on the ball, and Nelly rewards him with a terrific contested grab.
New England's offensive performance was undoubtedly better than a week ago, and the ability to successfully beat man coverage is a massive step in the right direction. However, there's still more meat on the bone from a creativity and personnel utilization standpoint.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gave a detailed answer to a question about the team's lack of play-action attempts through two weeks, explaining that play-action doesn't have the same impact against teams that blitz at a high rate and use man coverage more frequently. As you'd expect, Belichick's reasoning is sound. With the Pats putting on tape that they can beat man coverage, maybe that leads to more zone and an uptick of play-action.
But New England ranking dead-last in play-action attempts (seven) and motion at the snap rate (4.3%) is forcing their offense to win one-on-one battles across the board without as much aid from the scheme.
Luckily, the Patriots won enough of their one-on-ones to get a victory over the Steelers. But they're asking a lot from their skill players by playing stagnant offensive football. Hopefully, we'll see more fakes and misdirection as everyone gets more comfortable with the new system.
If the Patriots add more motion and play-action (RPOs, please) to Sunday's plan, they'll have something to work with that we can get behind this season.
After Further Review, here are five more film takeaways from the Patriots win over the Steelers:
1. Belichick Buying into the Two-High Takeover Across the NFL?
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach in New England, the Patriots will play man coverage at a league-high rate. However, over the last two seasons, Belichick is acknowledging that his personnel at cornerback and the league as a whole is turning to bend-don't-break defense.
We've seen the Pats use this philosophy before. Still, a glance at film from around the NFL shows that every team is playing a similar style of defense by forcing offenses into long drives by limiting big plays with two-high safety zones. The rules are skewed towards the offense, and there are quarterbacks and playmakers galore, so the adjustment on defense is to limit the bleeding by forcing death by a thousand paper cuts.
In the first two weeks, the Patriots have played 21.9 percent of their coverage snaps in either cover-two or quarters (two-high safeties), and their most used structure by far is cover-three (41.5%). In total, the Pats have played zone on 69.3 percent of their defensive snaps.
As the rest of the league gravitates towards Vic Fangio's two-high safety spin system, the Pats are doing things their way to limit chunk gains.
On Jalen Mills's first-quarter interception, the Patriots disguise a cover-two zone by putting safety Adrian Phillips on the boundary. Phillips being out there usually signals man coverage or some sort of blitz, but the Pats drop Mills in the deep safety role and play spot-drop cover-two. After carrying out the play-action fake, Trubisky is not expecting Mack Wilson to fall underneath Diontae Johnson's slant route, and Wilson makes an athletic play to tip the pass to Mills.
Here's a more exotic post-snap coverage rotation by the Patriots secondary. Before the snap, the two-high alignment signals to the QB that it's a split-safety coverage. However, Pats safety Kyle Dugger widens to take the deep third as New England forms a cover-three structure. Dugger has great eyes on this rep to turn himself inside and pick up Chase Claypool working across the formation, forcing Trubisky to check the ball down.
The defensive front also deserves credit for holding Steelers running back Najee Harris to 3.3 yards per rush despite the uptick in split-safety coverages leaving fewer defenders in the box. Lawrence Guy (three stops) and Deatrich Wise (two stops) led the way in that department.
Over the last two seasons, the Patriots have shifted to a zone coverage team and continue incorporating two-high safety structures to combat a passing-happy NFL.
2. Breaking Down Mac Jones's Interception and Decision-Making Concerns
Overall, the coaches tape was much kinder to Patriots quarterback Mac Jones than our live viewing. Yes, he had two turnover-worthy plays and a few reads he'd like to have back. But Mac consistently made competitive throws against man coverage and read leverage/help well.
Although the narratives surrounding Jones's up-and-down play to start the season often take aim at his physical limitations, the more concerning trend is Mac's mental mistakes through two games. One of Jones's biggest strengths is his high football IQ and making smart decisions. But following two turnover-worthy plays in Sunday's win, we are seeing more head-scratching throws and processing errors than usual.
As we said in the past, it's important to keep these mental miscues in context as Jones adjusts to a new coaching staff, but his process was sped up while under pressure and resulted in a turnover. Listen and watch above.
3. Patriots Return to Downhill Rushing Attack and Get Better Results
Believe it or not, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was under pressure on more drop-backs this week than in the season-opener against the Dolphins. However, the Pats running game was significantly improved thanks to a few adjustments by the coaching staff.
First, the Patriots went back to a gap or power-heavy rushing attack to get downhill on the Steelers defense. New England called 18 gap schemes to just five zone-blocking runs, and it doesn't feel like a coincidence that the running game was better as a result.
In Week 1, the Patriots produced a negative EPA output on their 20 non-QB rush attempts (-0.19) but turned that round this week with an impressive +0.14 EPA per rush (89th percentile).
Here, New England blocks one-back power from the gun for an 18-yard gain by Damien Harris on their final possession. In another game-plan wrinkle, the Pats early-down grouping featured wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey as the third receiver in a big slot role. The Pats O-Line blocks down with right guard Mike Onwenu pulling to the linebacker level, and Humphrey (#83) seals safety Terrell Edmunds to spring Harris for a big gain.
The Patriots then ended the game with back-to-back reps of a new pin-pull scheme where center David Andrews pulls to the weak side of the formation as left guard Cole Strange pins the defender on the line of scrimmage to fold over the defense.
New England's adjustments to more gap runs and adding Humphrey into the run-game plan made a huge difference this week.
4. Patriots DT Christian Barmore Registers Team-High Four QB Pressures
After having a relatively quiet performance against the Dolphins in Week 1, breakout candidate Christian Barmore logged a team-high four quarterback pressures with a sack, QB hit, and two hurries in Sunday's victory in Pittsburgh. New England only blitzed Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky four times, relying on its front four to contain the mobile Steelers QB in the pocket while dropping most of its resources into coverage, forcing Trubisky to beat them as a pocket passer. Deatrich Wise had another strong performance defeating multiple blockers at times along the line of scrimmage for two run stops and a quarterback hurry.
5. Breaking Down Pats LB Matthew Judon's Huge Pass Breakup
With the Patriots clinging to a 17-14 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced a third-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. The result of the play was an incomplete pass intended for running back Najee Harris that Judon broke up. Pittsburgh would not possess the ball again, as New England's offense ran out of the final 6:33 on the clock to seal a victory.
The Patriots showed pressure with six potential rushers and likely expected the Steelers to keep Harris in to block. The Pats are in man coverage with linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley responsible for Harris. But when Harris releases outside and Bentley gets caught in the traffic, Judon makes the head-up decision to drop with Harris in coverage and stay on the wheel route. If Judon doesn't jump Harris there, there's no way Bentley will recover to Harris, a potentially game-saving play.