The NFL is having a year from hell at the most important position in the sport, with several starting quarterbacks now set to miss games due to injury this season.
After sustaining an ankle injury in a Monday night overtime loss to the Bengals, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence joined a way-too-lengthy list of starting quarterbacks who are now sidelined for the foreseeable future. Along with Lawrence, the following quarterbacks are out of the lineup due to injury: Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, Anthony Richardson, Derek Carr, and now the Patriots opponent this Thursday night in Pittsburgh is down their starter in Kenny Pickett.
The league has done everything it can to protect quarterbacks. Unfortunately, it's a contact sport where injuries happen. With that said, the prevailing thought from a Patriots perspective after watching Monday night's backup quarterback duel in Duval wasn't about how much of a bummer it is that three of the AFC's best quarterbacks, Lawrence, Burrow, and Rodgers, might not be competing in the playoffs this season.
Instead, it's hard to fathom that the Patriots offense has scored fewer points in its last four games (30) than the Bengals did with backup Jake Browning (34) under center against Jacksonville. If a backup quarterback like Browning can succeed against a playoff-caliber Jags team, what is going on offensively in Foxboro?
Browning inherited a Bengals offense ready-made to win a Super Bowl with its franchise QB. Cincinnati's backup threw for 354 yards while adding +0.55 expected points because he threw to Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, with Joe Mixon running behind a capable offensive line. Then, Jags backup CJ Beathard entered the game for Lawrence, immediately leading a field goal drive to force overtime.
As we get back on topic, the Monday night case study wasn't backup quarterback envy. But it's an example of how far away the Patriots are from fielding a supporting cast that can allow a quarterback to function properly. Now that we have starts wtih Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, it's crystal clear that the Patriots have more issues than just quarterback.
Although it isn't due to injury for New England, the Patriots have a backup quarterback duel of their own this week, with Zappe likely starting against Steelers backup Mitch Trubisky. Last season, the Pats won a game in Pittsburgh with Trubisky at quarterback by a final score of 17-14. This is another winnable game without Pickett, who was flashing big-time throw ability in his second season to top receivers George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and tight end Pat Freirermuth.
However, with their offense, it's hard to pick the Patriots in any game right now, even though the Pats defense should be able to limit a Trubisky-led Steelers group that fired its offensive coordinator two weeks ago. Talk about a matchup the Pats used to win in their sleep.
Here are our keys to victory for the Patriots in a primetime Thursday night game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh:
Offensive Key - Patriots OC Bill O'Brien is Long Overdue for a Great Game vs. Familiar, Predictable Steelers Defense
A couple of things before we get into the plan this week. First, the Steelers have a very good defense; they're sixth in total DVOA and pass DVOA while ranking ninth in EPA allowed (-0.06).
In the interest of full disclosure, everyone's one-week darling, Jake Browning, only scored ten points while generating -0.13 expected points added vs. this Steelers defense in a Week 12 loss. Pittsburgh's front four, featuring a former Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt, a now healthy Cameron Hayward, and two underrated rushers in Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi, are fully capable of taking over on Thursday night. The Steelers have the pieces to pitch another shutout against the Patriots.
Second, New England is tracking to start second-year QB Bailey Zappe again on Thursday night. Zappe wasn't awful in his first start last week, with shotty pass protection and a limited skill group. Still, there was a lot of hesitation/delay in his processing, and his accuracy in the first half was subpar. Zappe is a more nimble, natural thrower than Mac Jones, and he improved as the game wore on. But, like Jones, his arm talent and physical tools don't allow him to elevate this unit.
For those reasons, the Patriots could struggle to score points. However, they are familiar with this defensive scheme under head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Although it's not the zone-heavy, Blitzburgh defense the Patriots used to face when Dick LeBeau was running things from 2004-2014, New England's staff knows this defense well and found enough points to win last September in their place.
With his background in the Tampa-2 system, Tomlin has combined his roots going back to his days as the Bucs defensive backs coach with more man coverage. In a departure from the cover three system we remember Chris Hogan running through with his invisibility cloak in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers are playing the fourth-highest rate of man coverage in the NFL this season (39.7%). They've also played the eighth-most drop-backs in either cover two or cover two-man (90), so that's the base coverage system.
The Steelers will incorporate different pass-rushing fronts on third down while featuring exotic post-snap coverage rotations. Still, they play their brand of coverage and try to out-execute you.
Starting with the man coverages, the Steelers play way more man-to-man these days than they did during the height of the Brady-Roethlisberger rivalry. The Bengals were able to generate some offense through the air with pick/rub concepts to help slot receivers get separation. Above, the Bengals run a rub route for Andrei Iosivas that gets him loose for a 16-yard gain.
Last season, Jones was 10-of-18 for 145 yards with a 100.5 passer rating against Pittsburgh's man coverage. A large chunk of that was on a contested go route to Nelson Agholor. But the Pats QB was also 7-of-9 for 83 yards on crossing patterns. Crossers are a good way to stress single-high man coverages, particularly when you like a particular matchup, or can create traffic over the middle to force man coverage defenders to navigate through the trash.
Since the Pats are at a huge disadvantage against this Steelers front, the expectation is they'll rely more on shallow crossers with mesh concepts rather than intermediate crossers, as shown above. Still, it's the same idea, which is to create foot races across the field vs. man coverage.
Next, when O'Brien anticipates Tampa-2 calls, teams succeed by high-lowing the middle linebacker, who has to take the deepest interior threat up the middle of the coverage. In traditional cover-two, the middle linebacker would stay in the short zone distribution. But the Tampa-2 family adapted to teams splitting the two-deep safeties by essentially making the middle linebacker the third guy high in these coverage structures.
With the middle linebacker carrying anything vertical up the interior of the field, it creates a pocket of space underneath. Here, the Cardinals have number one run vertical, with number two filling in over the ball for a completion. The quarterback can play off the middle linebacker for an easy read. If the middle linebacker carries the vertical, that sit route will be open. But if the linebacker stays in a short zone, the QB can take a shot between the deep safeties.
Although he isn't playing with a great hand, O'Brien has all the schematic answers to give Zappe coverage beaters against this Steelers defense. As always, execution and blocking Pittsburgh's front are concerns. But the Pats OC should be able to scheme receivers open.
Not coincidentally, the last great O'Brien game plan was New England's last win against the Bills in Week 7. The Pats offensive coordinator should earn his paycheck this week.
Defensive Key - Force Steelers Backup QB Mitch Trubisky to Win With Accuracy, Processing From the Pocket
Moving over to the defense, it's disappointing that Pickett isn't starting after some solid film in a win over the Bengals a few weeks ago.
Pittsburgh's offense has design flaws that led to Matt Canada's firing, but Pickett has the downfield accuracy to drop dimes on vertical routes, with four big-time throws against Cincinnati. Although the jury is still out on Pickett, seeing him against a Belichick defense would've added a little juice.
Instead, the Patriots will face Trubisky, who they beat last season. He obviously has flaws as a former second-overall pick that didn't pan out, mainly because he's inaccurate and struggles to work through progressions beyond his first read. If you allow him to hit on-time outs and verticals while using his athleticism outside the pocket, Trubisky can make plays, so that's where the plan starts.
|Mitch Trubisky vs. Patriots, 2022
|vs. Drop-Eight Coverages
With quarterbacks like Trubisky, blitzing them can simplify reads (throw hot) and allow them to be an athlete out there. So, rather than heating him up, the Patriots went in the other direction. Last season, the Patriots played coverage against Trubisky, only bringing extra rushers on blitzes four times. Instead, the Pats deployed three and four-man rushes, using drop-eight coverages to make Trubisky beat them from the pocket. The Patriots defense played eight coverage snaps with eight defenders in coverage (4-of-7, 45 yards, touchdown, interception, sack, -0.34 EPA per drop-back).
Here, the Patriots run a drop-eight coverage against a mesh concept, with the Steelers anticipating man coverage. The congestion in the middle of the field with the extra help defenders takes away the shallow crossers, so Trubisky has to progress to the one-on-one matchup with Freiermuth on Kyle Dugger on an out in the flat. Freiermuth has a chance to make the catch, but with Trubisky throwing at a difficult angle, the pass glances off the tight end's hands.
Although the talent levels are drastically different, the general idea from a structural standpoint is similar to what the Patriots defense did against Justin Hebert last week: commit your numbers to coverage and force the quarterback to make throws into tight windows without extending plays.
With two receivers who would probably be number ones in New England, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens present matchup problems, while Freiermuth is a tough cover as a big-framed tight end who can box out on in cuts and seam runs. This isn't a talent-deprived Steelers offense, but Trubisky is a limited passer who the Patriots defense should dominate.
Pats RT Mike Onwenu vs. Steelers EDGE T.J. Watt - Onwenu might've played his worst game as a Patriot last week, allowing a season-high five QB pressures and a sack mostly against Chargers top pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Watt's injury status is worth monitoring, but it's another stiff test for evaluating Onwenu's future at tackle. Watt's play speed and first-step explosiveness are elite.
Pats LG Cole Strange vs. Steelers DT Cam Hayward - Strange had a solid game against a smaller Chargers D-Line, but Hayward is a different breed. The veteran savvy, hand fighting, and power are great tests for Strange, who needs good film to stick with the Patriots long term.
Pats S Kyle Dugger vs. Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth - Although there are more explosive threats on the outside, Freiermuth is the type of tight end all quarterbacks love throwing to: big frame, good catch radius, plays in the middle of the field. He's a tough matchup in man coverage.