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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Thu May 16 - 02:00 PM | Tue May 21 - 11:55 AM

Scouting the Steelers: Key Schematic Elements and Matchups in Patriots-Steelers

A lot has changed since the last time the Patriots played the Steelers.

Pictured are Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubiski (10) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39).
Pictured are Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubiski (10) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39).

The Patriots want to avoid making losing games a habit, but they'll need to solve their problems offensively for that to become a reality. 

Starting with Sunday's visit to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England's offense is searching for a more consistent winning formula to finish drives in the end zone. And a good place to start is identifying their personnel's strengths, especially at quarterback. 

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones's best attributes are mental processing, ability to operate in the quick passing game, and accuracy. But Jones looks uncomfortable in the pocket when he senses pressure, and the overall struggles of the offense are beginning to impact even the positives of Jones's game that made him a reliable starter as a rookie.

The fact that we are seeing the Pats quarterback make more mental errors in pre-snap problem-solving pressure and become more inconsistent with his decision-making is likely a byproduct of the bigger picture rather than Jones regressing in his second season. 

To get the Patriots and their quarterback back on track, New England needs to put players in positions to succeed by highlighting the strengths of their skill players. 

Although the Patriots don't have a singular dominant pass-catcher, they do have a deep collection of players with singular above-average traits: DeVante Parker wins on contested catches, Kendrick Bourne brings burst and energy, Nelson Agholor presents a speed element, Jakobi Meyers is a reliable safety blanket, Hunter Henry is strong in the middle of the field and the red zone, and lastly, Jonnu Smith is statistically an elite after the catch ball carrier. 

Therefore, the Patriots should avoid leaning too heavily on any one individual and make the most out of their strengths. To do that, play-caller Matt Patricia and the rest of the offensive staff need to help New England's playmakers more with scheme. 

In Week 1, no team ran fewer play-action pass attempts than the Patriots (two), while Jones didn't throw a single pass where a receiver was in motion at the snap. For comparison, the Dolphins ran 17 play-action passes, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a league-high ten drop-backs with a receiver coming in motion on jet sweep designs. 

Play-action and motion make an offense more successful for obvious reasons; play-action pulls defenders out of passing lanes, while motion changes the defensive structure and helps the player in motion gain leverage and speed.

Even if the Patriots had an elite receiver, utilizing these tools is good for the offense, but it's essential for this group to create separation in the passing game consistently. 

With the Patriots focus turning to the Pittsburgh Steelers, here are three schematic things New England needs to prepare for and key matchups in Sunday's contest:

1. Get Your Two-High Safety Zone Beaters Ready vs. Steelers DC Teryl Austin

After a decade of defenses trying to mimic the Seattle-3, a new "it" system is taking over the NFL as passing offenses become even more challenging to match up with in man coverage. 

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will always play his fair share of man coverage, but even Belichick has pivoted to more zone structures over the last calendar year. A big part of that is personnel driven, the departures of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, but it's also a testament to how challenging it is to line up in man-to-man against the NFL's best.

Due to the success of defensive coaches such as Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley, the new craze is two-high safety defenses. The system relies on more quarters, cover-six, and "palms" or cover-two read coverages, where the defense plays with two deep safeties almost primarily.

When they sprinkle in an occasional single-high coverage, it usually features a post-snap rotation where the defense starts in two-high and then rotates into cover-three or man.

As Belichick mentioned this week, the Steelers played primarily zone coverage in their 23-20 victory over the reigning AFC champion Bengals in their season-opener. Pittsburgh forced five turnovers and sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times in the win. 

Although the Steelers accumulated seven sacks, Burrow was only under pressure on 29.2 percent of his drop-backs. The pressure was there, but the bigger story was the coverage. 

With his background in the two-high style of defense, Pittsburgh is transitioning from longtime defensive coordinator Keith Butler to veteran NFL assistant Teryl Austin this season. 

The Steelers parted ways with Butler after a down defensive season a year ago, and Austin's fingerprints were immediately all over Pittsburgh's upset win over the Bengals in Week 1. 

Pittsburgh's primary coverage was cover-two, utilizing a cover-two structure on 23 coverage snaps and intercepting Burrow three times in cover-two. It was only one game so it could've been game-plan specific, but the percentage doubled for cover-two compared to 2021.

The Steelers got their first turnover less than three minutes into the game when star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow and turned the takeaway into seven points.

On the play, Pittsburgh doesn't do anything fancy, dropping into a standard two-deep and five-under zone with a four-man rush. Burrow reads the outside corner gravitating towards the shallow receiver and thinks he has Tyler Boyd open in the cover-two hole. However, Fitzpatrick makes an excellent read and break on the ball, arriving well before the throw gets there.

Pittsburgh also dialed up some disguised zone coverages on third down against Cincinnati. Above, the Steelers run an inverted cover-two scheme where the slot corner drops into the deep half and the deep safety exchanges with the MIKE linebacker in the underneath zone structure. Again, this is only a four-man rush, and the rotation coupled with a great spin move by pass-rusher Alex Highsmith forces Burrow to take a third-down sack.

The key to beating any zone coverage is to flood zones by creating high-low conflicts for the coverage defenders. Expect the Patriots to try high-lowing the short zones by clearing out coverage with vertical routes and then having receivers follow the verticals underneath.

For example, New England could have a tight end or inside receiver "run the shoot" to split the deep safeties in cover-two, which forces the middle linebacker to carry the vertical and then take the yards underneath. Another answer could be a sideline flood concept, where a vertical route clears out the coverage while a corner and flat pattern high-low the outside corner.

The Patriots will need to have their split-safety zone beaters at the ready, but a matchup against an old friend could change how the Steelers game plan this week.

2. Beware of the Brian Flores Effect on the Steelers Game Plan on Defense

Although Austin is the primary defensive play-caller, the Steelers were clearly melding Austin's philosophies with former Pats assistant and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores's system.

Flores is now a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Steelers, and there were plenty of recognizable coverage calls and pressures from the Flores we all know.

After seeing the Patriots struggle picking up the Dolphins blitzes last week, Flores, a notorious pressuring play-caller, could get more of the reins this week against his former team.

Although Pro Football Focus charted the Steelers with 15 blitzes and six snaps of cover zero, Pittsburgh mainly utilized a four and five-man rush against the Bengals. When they brought five-man pressures, the schemes looked familiar with Flores designing those elements.

Here, the Steelers disguise cover-one by aligning with two deep safeties before the snap. At the snap, Fitzpatrick rotates down to account for the running back in man coverage, turning it into man-free (man with a single-high safety). The five-man rush gets home thanks to an interior stunt that utilizes defensive tackle Cameron Heyward as the wrap rusher.

Along with sending a handful of all-out blitzes at the Bengals, the Steelers had a few disguised blitzes from their slot DBs in the game plan last week. With New England's struggles against man coverage recently and no real deep threat to demand a two-high safety structure, one would expect we'll see more Flores elements from Pittsburgh versus the Pats.

The Patriots will need a plan to handle the cover zero looks. But they should also feature a heavy dosage of in-breaking routes such as crossers, slants, and digs, with the Steelers corners taking outside leverage with middle-of-the-field, post-safety help.

If Flores is going to forgo low or robber help to add another defender into the rush, the Patriots need to take advantage by attacking between the numbers. After all, we've seen opposing offenses do the same against New England in the past.

With Flores now three years removed from being a Patriots assistant and the Pats offensive changes, his institutional knowledge is a tad overrated in this matchup.

Still, Flores's style of defense has given the Patriots significant problems, and he had effective game plans against Mac Jones in two matchups as the Dolphins head coach last season.

3. Know the Smoke and Mirrors is Coming From Steelers OC Matt Canada

Pittsburgh's struggles offensively were overshadowed by a stellar defensive performance in their upset win over the Bengals last week.

The Steelers only managed 13 first downs, were 4-15 on third down, and created just two explosive plays in regulation; a reverse flea-flicker and a tight end screen. In overtime, an insane one-handed by Diontae Johnson and a broken play by quarterback Mitch Trubisky got them down the field. Most of their points came on short fields as well.

Trubisky averaged only 3.6 yards per attempt as a traditional drop-back passer and lost 0.27 expected points per pass play. Pittsburgh's traditional runs only averaged three yards per attempt.

If you didn't get the hint, the Steelers offense struggled outside of a few schemed plays by offensive coordinator Matt Canada and late-game heroics. With that said, Canada is known for having a few tricks up his sleeve.

Once called a master of disguise, Canada incorporated plenty of bells and whistles. The Steelers tried to generate offense through read-option, shovel passes off motion, flea-flickers, and six rush attempts for wide receiver Chase Claypool on jet sweeps.

From this perspective, the Steelers offense is a non-threat against the Patriots defense as long as New England accounts for the smoke and mirrors.

The only other aspect the Patriots must account for is Trubisky's athleticism to extend plays and drives with his legs. Back in 2018, the former Bears QB ran for 81 yards and had a 39-yard run in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

Last week, Trubisky got the Steelers into field goal range by breaking out of a sack and throwing across the field to tight end Pat Freiermuth on a scramble drill, backyard football play.

The game plan for the Patriots is simple: be aware of Canada's tricks, keep Trubisky in the pocket, and force the Steelers to drive the entire field.

Key Matchups

1. Patriots Interior Offensive Line vs. Steelers DT Cameron Heyward

From a matchup standpoint, the biggest key to the game is the Patriots interior O-Line against Cameron Heyward and a stout group of IDLs. Heyward is aging like a fine wine with five total pressures and a sack in Week 1, while the Bengals had zero success running the football. The Pats need to prepare for the Steelers coaching staff trying to isolate Heyward on rookie Cole Strange.

2. Patriots QB Mac Jones vs. Steelers DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

The game within the game between Mac and former Alabama teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick is a fascinating chess match. New England won't win if they lose the turnover battle by a wide margin as they did last week and as the Bengals did against Pittsburgh. At the center of all that is Fitzpatrick, an excellent ball-hawk who roams the defense in specific roles. Have to know where #39 is on Sunday.

3. Patriots CB Jonathan Jones vs. Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots matchup in man coverage situations on Sunday. Although Jalen Mills might be considered their top outside corner, he seems better equipped to take the size and speed combination that Chase Claypool or rookie George Pickens brings to the table. That leaves Jon Jones to take the route-runner of the group in Johnson, who is the Steelers number one target. It'll be another high-volume day for Jones if that's the case.

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