W2W4: New England Patriots (5-1) Passing Defense vs Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) Passing Offense

Oct 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (7) and Landry Jones (3) look at a tablet device on the sidelines against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 43-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (7) and Landry Jones (3) look at a tablet device on the sidelines against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 43-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The New England Patriots are travelling to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in what should have been a heavyweight fight. However, Ben Roethlisberger is out and Landry Jones will be stepping in at quarterback. Roethlisberger tried to play through a torn meniscus in his knee against Miami last week and it was clear he was limited.

The Dolphins managed the upset of the Steelers who left Sun Life Stadium and the Sunshine State with a surprising 30-15 loss.

This week the New England Patriots travel to Heinz Field to take on a hungry and wounded team–often the most dangerous opponent to face. While the Steelers’ offense is without its future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the offense still has the dangerous Le’Veon Bell at running back and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

This is the third matchup we will examine here at MusketFire.com this week as part of the W2W4 (What to Watch for) weekly feature. Already posted are the Patriots passing offense and rushing offense against the Steelers’ defense.

For your convenience, we will break the feature up into multiple parts throughout the weekend. This article will feature the New England passing defense.

So without further delay, let’s get to the match-ups for the Patriots’ passing defense against Steelers’ passing offense, the keys to to the game, and a look at both teams as the New England Patriots travel to Heinz Field to take on the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

New England Patriots Passing Defense vs Pittsburgh Steelers Passing Offense

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers turn their offense over to unproven Landry Jones at quarterback. Jones has a big arm which fits into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offensive system which likes to take shots deep down the field.

Jones started against Kansas City last year and Cleveland (where he left injured after just one series)  He did come off the bench in the AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, and in games against Oakland and Arizona. Coming into Sunday, Jones has just one pass attempt for the season.

While Jones may not have much game experience (56 career pass attempts) the 2013 fourth round draft pick is well versed in the offense. Last year the Steelers had to scale back the offense when Roethlisberger was injured and Jones and Michael Vick were under center, but in 2016 they expect Jones to handle the full playbook.

Jones had some rough performances in the preseason this year, including a four interception game, but Patriots viewers should be aware that those stats are meaningless. Remember the talk radio debate prior to the season about Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady not looking sharp in the preseason. How about the ridiculous “Did Garoppolo get enough snaps to be ready to play?”  

Forget the preseason. By week seven it should be completely forgotten.

Jones still has Le’Veon Bell and the running game to take some pressure off of him. Bell is also a dangerous receiver with 20 receptions for 177 yards in three games this season (all stats per Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).  Bell is dangerous any time he has the ball in his hands and Jones will have him as a safety valve on Sunday.

The Patriots should have linebacker Jamie Collins back to team with Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the defense. They have to be aware of Bell coming out of the backfield and keeping an eye on the Steelers’ tight ends. The linebackers–along with strong safety Patrick Chung–will have their hands full trying to keep Bell from making big plays in the passing game.

The Steelers miss Heath Miller at tight end after the popular player retired after the 2015 season.  Free agent acquisition Ladarius Green has not stepped on the field yet starting the season on the PUP list and has just returned to practice. In his place, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble have shown some flashes, but the young tight ends are both inconsistent and highlight how much the Steelers miss the reliable Miller.  

Of course, any discussion about the Steelers passing game focuses on Antonio Brown. Arguably the league’s best overall wide receiver, Brown is smart, strong, fast, athletic, runs precision routes, understands the offense inside-out and has great hands.

Yeah, he is a handful for any defense.

Brown matched-up with Malcolm Butler man-to-man in the 2015 season opener. Brown had nine receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown but 24 of those yards and the touchdown came in garbage time as the Patriots had a two touchdown lead with three minutes to play and focused on playing prevent defense and keeping the Steelers receivers in front of them.

It was Butler’s first start as the top cornerback and his compete level stood out as he made Brown work hard for every reception and every yard. Butler has not been playing as much man-to-man coverage in 2016 due to the defensive scheme, but last week in Cincinnati the Patriots switched back to press corners and shut down the Bengals.

Per ProFootballFocus.com, Butler was the top-graded Patriots defensive player earning a 95.9 player grade (on a 1-100 scale, so that is a solid “A”). Butler did allow a touchdown to Brandon LaFell, but PFF indicated that Butler was targeted seven times by Andy Dalton and allowed just three completions for just 17 yards (a miniscule 2.4 yards per attempt), and he was credited with three pass breakups upping his total to an NFL leading eight pass breakups.

Last week saw Eric Rowe get his first significant action in New England and found himself matched-up with A.J. Green. Talk about a “Welcome to the Patriots” moment for Rowe.

Rowe hung in with Green well in the second half and had a pass breakup in the end zone. NESN.com had Rowe targeted three times allowing just 10 yards on two receptions. He had stepped in for Cyrus Jones (DNP-CD, no surprise for the rookie a week after an ejection for fighting) and Justin Coleman (probably the biggest disappointment after a promising 2015 as slot cornerback).

Jones may get more playing time with speed a necessity with the dangerous Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey pressuring downfield. Heyward is stepping in for the injured Markus Wheaton again this week. Both Steelers receivers are deep threats and the Patriots still need to account for the under-used Eli Rogers in the slot.

Rogers is a rookie slot receiver who is slight and quick and is nicknamed “the illusionist”.  Unfortunately for the Steelers, after a week one of six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown the illusionist disappeared and has just seven receptions for 76 yards since that game. Rogers did miss two games due to a turf toe injury before returning last week.

Rogers was an undrafted free agent out of Louisville who spent all of 2015 on injured reserve and never had more than 536 yards receiving in a season and is now a major contributor on a perennial NFL power. Like the Patriots, the Steelers have maintained their consistent excellence through unearthing players of this calibre each year.  

With Malcolm Butler on Antonio Brown, Logan Ryan and whoever else is at cornerback (rookie Jonathan Jones, second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones, Eric Rowe, or Justin Coleman could all end up playing) will have to defend the deep passes of the strong-armed Landry Jones as he looks to Heyward-Bey and Coates to get behind the New England cornerbacks and safeties.

With the speed receivers on the outside, Antonio Brown, young and athletic tight ends, and Le’Veon Bell coming out of the backfield, the Patriots cannot sleep on the Steelers passing attack–even without Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers are going to make some big plays and going to put together a few scoring drives–the offense is simply too talented to be completely shut down. The Patriots will look to duplicate Miami’s success last week flooding the secondary and still generating pressure with their front four to slow the Steelers attack.

The Patriots pass defense has allowed 1,530 yards passing this year (19th in total yards) but held Andy Dalton to just 111 yards in the second half after he carved up their zone defense in the first half.

Switching to a more aggressive scheme seemed to ignite the New England defense and if they carry that scheme into Pittsburgh this week the pass defense should continue to show it can be a strength–especially against an inexperienced quarterback.