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

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is back to full strength. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is back to full strength. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The New England Patriots are coming off a strong second half against the Cincinnati Bengals, outscoring the AFC North visitors 25 to 10 over the last 30 minutes en route to a 35 to 17 victory. The Patriots were behind in the second half 14-10 before the defense got aggressive and the offense fed off the shift in momentum.

This week, the Steelers are reeling from the loss of future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after a torn meniscus in his knee required surgery and will miss four to six weeks. What was to be a marquee matchup between two of the best quarterbacks in the game is now diminished by Landry Jones stepping in behind center for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have been an enigma in 2016 — winning four games by dominating on offense (38, 24, 43, and 31 points scored) but in their two losses the defense has been rampaged (34 and 30 points). Last week the Miami Dolphins crushed the Steelers and now the secondary has to deal with an upgrade in talent facing Tom Brady.

This is first matchup we will examine here at MusketFire.com this week as part of the W2W4 (What to Watch for) weekly feature. For your convenience, we will break the feature up into multiple parts throughout the weekend. Today, we kick off with a look at the New England passing offense.

New England Patriots Passing Offense vs Pittsburgh Steelers Passing Defense

New England Patriots
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been unstoppable so far in 2016. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports /

On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary seems better than they have played so far in 2016. With familiar veterans like William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden, the back end of the Pittsburgh defense has a solid reputation. Add in the talented third-year cornerback Ross Cockrell and you have a second that could be capable of slowing the New England passing attack.

However, the closest the Steelers have come to facing an elite passing offense thus far in 2016 was when they lined up against Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz. Otherwise, they faced middle-of-the-pack quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Ryan Tannehill. Going up against Tom Brady should be a challenge for a Pittsburgh secondary which has struggled against mediocre and unproven passing offenses.  

The Steelers defense ranks 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed with 1,762 (all stats per Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). They are 22nd in yards per pass attempt at 6.9 yards.  Only the now-benched Ryan Fitzpatrick and the anemic Jets offense has passed for fewer than 250 yards against the Steelers in 2016.

Even with their solid veterans, the Steelers are going to need to put their younger, less experienced defensive backs on the field if they hope to cover New England’s duo of tight ends. Expect Tom Brady to exploit these matchups by spreading the field and picking on them.

Even if the Steelers can work out a coverage scheme to slow the New England wide receivers, they still have to account for Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The Steelers did well in shutting down Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce in Week 4, but the Chiefs’ passing attack pales in comparison to New England’s. Washington tight end Jordan Reed ate up the Steelers in Week 1, hauling in seven passes for 64 yards.

Steelers linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams have struggled in pass coverage all season and haven’t faced a dual tight end threat anywhere near the caliber of Gronkowski and Bennett. Safety Robert Golden and Shazier may be the best of the bunch as they can both run with tight ends and are physical enough to match-up against them, but Shazier has missed the last three weeks recovering from a knee injury and may be limited if he does suit up against New England.

Look for James White to play a big role in the Patriots’ passing attack on Sunday, considering the coverage issues the Steelers have had with running backs this season Both Darren Sproles and Giovani Bernard racked up 100-yard receiving games against the Steelers earlier this year. 

The New England receivers can be a handful for opponents as well. The Steelers have had three different slot cornerbacks and three different safeties so far in six games. Beyond free safety Mike Mitchell and left cornerback Ross Cockrell, the Steelers secondary features Cleveland Browns washout Justin Gilbert, rookie cornerback Artie Burns and cornerback/free safety Sean Davis–who typically are only on the field in nickel and dime defenses. This group has struggled in coverage.

Davis has been so underwhelming that he was benched last week and did not play a single snap against Miami. As for Gilbert, he may go down as one of the worst first round draft picks in recent memory. Al-Hajj Shabazz has shown up on the game tape at cornerback for a few snaps here and there. Gay and first round draft pick Burns often switch between the slot and outside corner positions. This week they may mix-and-match more as they will be tasked with covering quick and shifty veterans such as Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan.

Pittsburgh’s best hope to slow Tom Brady is to duplicate the Bengals’ first half game plan of flooding the passing lanes with seven defenders and generating pressure with their front four. However, the Steelers do not have pass rushers the quality of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Michael Johnson who can consistently bring pressure without blitzing.

Veteran Ricardo Mathews, rookie Javon Hargrave, and the massive Stephon Tuitt are solid run defenders for the Steelers, but none of them are known for their pass rush skills. Cam Heyward is their best interior rusher and he is out with a hamstring injury. The ageless James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones are their best bets for bringing pressure since Bud Dupree is out indefinitely with an abdominal muscle tear. Of course, the Steelers are known for exotic blitzes, but over the past decade, Brady –with his ability to get rid of the ball in less than two seconds –has fared well against these types of schemes.

The New England offensive line should have an easier time against the Steelers’ pass rush and their communication on blocking assignments when facing blitzes will be key. The interior offensive line is young with rookie Joe Thuney at left guard, second-year man David Andrews at center, and guard Shaq Mason. If the Steelers are going to attack the line, they may try to overload the A gap and come at Brady up the middle.

With James White, Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski all having favorable matchups with the Steelers running backs, Tom Brady may have difficulty deciding where to throw the football. The Patriots need to expand the role of Julian Edelman — bringing him back into the offense — and take advantage of Chris Hogan’s ability to work the sidelines and get behind the defense. With that said, Brady should be able to get everyone involved in the defense.

The Steelers have struggled in pass coverage all season. Even at home, the thought of facing Tom Brady is no doubt keeping defensive coordinator Keith Butler up at night trying to slow the passing attack down. Brady has been phenomenal in two games (76% completion rate, 782 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in two games) and should carve up Pittsburgh’s pass defense on Sunday afternoon.