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

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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.

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Evan Lazar

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