In what’s becoming an annual tradition, the New England Patriots are set to face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a late-season matchup with serious playoff implications. To say these teams are familiar with each other is an understatement, as these teams have met five times in the past four years. While New England historically holds the upper hand here, they’ll still need to bring their A-game to come out of Pittsburgh with a victory. Let’s dive into the New England Patriots vs Pittsburgh Steelers gameplan and see how to stop this high-octane offense.
New England Patriots vs Pittsburgh Steelers Gameplan: Stopping the Steelers Offense
Normally, the Steelers have one of the more explosive backs in the NFL in second-year runner James Conner. Conner has filled in seamlessly for LeVeon Bell, providing the ability to beat defenses on both the ground and the air. However, the Patriots probably won’t have to worry about him in Week 15.
Conner suffered an ankle injury in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers which is expected to sideline him for this weeks’ matchup. While he hypothetically could play, it looks unlikely. In his place is the underwhelming duo of Jaylen Samuels and old friend Stevan Ridley.
Samuels has some ability in the passing game, but he leaves a lot to be desired in the run game. So far, Samuels has recorded just 59 rushing yards on 23 carries, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. His run success rate is a measly 34.8%, which is 12.5% below league average.
Ridley is equally as inefficient. The former Patriot clearly doesn’t have much left in his tank, as evidenced by his 60 rushing yards on 23 carries. Interestingly, Ridley’s 30.4% rushing success rate is even lower than Samuels’, which just goes to show how inefficient this duo is.
The Patriots need to account for Samuels in the passing game, but they shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about either player in the ground game. New England’s run defense has been atrocious of late, but this duo doesn’t seem capable of exploiting that weakness.
When the Steelers Throw
This is where things get interesting. Pittsburgh boasts arguably the best wide receiver duo in football, and defending them is no easy task. Antonio Brown has been arguably the best receiver in football since 2013, and Juju Smith-Schuster is one of the league’s rising stars.
The Patriots ran into a similar situation two weeks ago against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The Patriots managed to negate the impact of both players by playing elaborate coverages to fool quarterback Kirk Cousins. While that gameplan worked wonders in Week 13, it probably won’t work in Week 15. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a much better passer than Cousins, and will probably be able to decipher those coverages. While it’s still worth a shot in clear passing situations, this game will come down to execution at the end of the day.
Antonio Brown is still putting up freak numbers, as evidenced by his 86 receptions, 1,063 yards, and league-leading 12 touchdowns. However, the superstar wide receiver’s production has been mostly volume based, as teams have done a good job limiting his efficiency. Brown has a 47.3% reception success rate this season, which is actually below the league average. His success rate is above average in just the short portion of the field.
This low success rate isn’t a reflection on Brown himself, but rather how defenses are selling out to stop him. Brown is double-teamed on just about every play, so it’s hard for him to be too efficient. However, teams devoting so many resources to stop Brown, Smith-Schuster tends to run wild against single coverage.
After flashing promise as a rookie, the second-year wideout is absolutely destroying defenses in his second year. So far this season, the 22-year old has 91 catches for 1,234 yards and six touchdowns. His 61.5% receiving success rate is 9.8% above league average and he can beat you in literally any part of the field.
How To Stop It
Clearly, the Patriots have a huge challenge on their hands. Fortunately, they also have one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore can match up against any receiver type, and the Patriots should use him isolated against Juju Smith-Schuster. Even though he has the better numbers, he’s still the WR2 in this offense. It will take more than one player to stop Antonio Brown, so New England should use their best cornerback to stop Pittsburgh’s second-best receiver.
The Patriots need to double team Brown whenever possible, the question is who they should use for said roles. Since the Patriots won’t have to worry too much about the run, New England could utilize either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon as the deep safety. Both players possess great speed over the top, but Harmon is probably the slightly better play here.
The next question is, who should be the cornerback in double coverage. While conventional wisdom says the job should fall to Jason McCourty, NESN.com’s Doug Kyed suggested using rookie JC Jackson against the superstar wideout.
While this decision wouldn’t be conventional, it could easily work. McCourty struggled in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins, while Jackson actually had a strong game (that miraculous last-second play notwithstanding). Despite going undrafted, Jackson had second-round ability entering the NFL Draft. Character concerns caused him to go undrafted, but the rookie has kept his nose clean off the field.
Gilmore and Jackson won’t be able to completely eliminate Smith-Schuster and Brown. The league is becoming more and more oriented for the offense, and these two are among the best in the NFL. However, they should be able to slow Pittsburgh down just enough. Tom Brady and the passing game is coming alive, and the defense should be able to do enough to let the Patriots emerge victoriously.
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