The Patriots’ defense is a big question mark entering the 2015 season following the departures of Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork, among others. And the defensive stats from Thursday night’s 28-21 win over the Steelers don’t inspire a ton of confidence.
The Patriots gave up 464 yards, allowed 5.4 yards per carry, allowed the Steelers to convert 9 of 17 third- and fourth-down attempts, and allowed five plays of 25-plus yards.
But the Patriots’ defense is going to be just fine this season, especially with Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia dialing up the plays. One sequence early in the fourth quarter eased a lot of fears.
With the Patriots leading, 21-11, the Steelers faced first and goal from the 8. They ran seven plays from the 8 or closer, and couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. The Patriots got especially stingy after Patrick Chung committed pass interference in the end zone, stuffing the Steelers on first- and second down from the 1.
Then on third and goal from the 6 following a Steelers false start, the Patriots played a light defensive front and goaded Ben Roethlisberger into a run play, much like the Patriots do when they face Peyton Manning. Yes, running the ball against a light front is technically the “right” play, but whenever you can take the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands on third and 6, it’s a win for the defense.
The Patriots stuffed the run yet again for a loss of 1, and forced the Steelers to kick a field goal that cut the lead to 21-14 instead of 21-18.
The numbers didn’t paint a great picture for the Patriots’ defense, but it came up big when it had to and kept the Steelers out of the end zone for most of the night.
Other observations after reviewing the All-22 film:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The game unveiled The Return of the Two Tight Ends, the much-anticipated sequel to the Patriots’ dynamic offense between 2010-12. Scott Chandler is no Aaron Hernandez in terms of versatility and athleticism, but he gives the Patriots a dynamic option in the passing game opposite Rob Gronkowski. Given how thin the Patriots are currently at wide receiver, the offense once again will revolve around the creative use of their tight ends.
Of the 60 real plays on offense, the Patriots used multiple tight ends on 34 of them, and scored all four TDs with multiple tight ends on the field. They used two tight ends on 23 snaps, three on six snaps and a whopping four on five snaps. Chandler’s TD came with three tight ends, and both of Gronk’s touchdowns near the goal line came with four.
Michael Hoomanawanui and newcomer Mike Williams gave the Patriots extra beef in the run game, but defenses have to respect them in the passing game more than they would a tackle-eligible play. That the Patriots can throw the ball out of three- and four-tight end sets will make them dangerous to defend. If defenses match up with linebackers and big bodies, the Patriots can beat them in the air. If defenses match up with safeties, the Patriots can pound the ball at them.
■ My favorite formation in the game came when Chandler and Gronk were split wide, and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were in the slot. Usually it’s the tight ends working the slot and the receivers on the outside. The Patriots did a great job of moving Gronk around and getting him matched up against linebackers – his third touchdown came against backup linebacker Terence Garvin, and his 52-yard catch came against rookie Bud Dupree, a pass rusher who doesn’t have good cover skills. Poor preparation by the Steelers, who didn’t hit Gronk at the line of scrimmage.
■ Tom Brady had a few touch throws he’d like to have back — a wheel route to Amendola that could’ve been a touchdown, a lob to Dion Lewis out of the backfield on a key third down in the fourth quarter that went a hair too far, and a floater to Edelman that also could’ve been a touchdown. But he dropped a dime to Amendola on the wheel route the second time around, threw two perfect jump balls to Gronk for a couple of touchdowns, and did a great job of leading Edelman to the inside, away from the defender.
■ Brady was at his best before the snap, dissecting the defense and knowing exactly where to go with the ball. Brady connected on the exact same play three times in a row to start the game — a quick hitch to the left side that was open because the slot receiver ran a go route and drew the attention of the defense. The Steelers blitzed on 10 of 34 dropbacks.
And when the Steelers exposed the “A” gap on third and 1, Brady quickly audibled and dived for the first down.
Pretty elementary stuff, Steelers defense.
■ The Steelers’ cornerbacks gave 8-10 yard cushions to Edelman and Amendola, and Brady chewed them up underneath. Edelman caught all four passes on Antwon Blake, all three passes against Cortez Allen, and three of four against William Gay. The Steelers played man-to-man half the time and Cover 1 or Cover 3 the other half, but couldn’t slow down the Patriots.
■ Aaron Dobson played more snaps than I thought — 30 of 61 — but only had one pass thrown his way, a 9-yard catch. I don’t think he’s earned Brady’s trust yet. Chandler only played 25 snaps and only had one ball thrown his way — his 1-yard touchdown. Williams, obtained from Detroit a few weeks ago and switched from offensive tackle to tight end, played 18 snaps and did a nice job setting the edge in the run game.
■ I like Lewis’s game. He’s only 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds but he runs hard and keeps his legs churning, and he was able to break several tackles and pick up 50 of his 69 yards after contact. He also showed great hands and yards-after-catch ability, and had a nice blitz pickup to prevent a sack. LeGarrette Blount probably will be the primary first-down and goal-line back when he comes back, but Lewis deserves a lot of playing time.
■ Props to the offensive line, which kept Brady clean despite playing without Bryan Stork or Ryan Wendell. Some of that was because of Brady getting the ball out of his hands quickly — 21 of his 32 attempts were within 10 yards — but the Patriots gave Brady a nice pocket and picked up zone blitzes pretty well.
■ Brady was only hit twice all day, and both were because of communication errors — sacks for Dupree and safety Will Allen, both of whom came in unblocked. Undrafted rookie David Andrews was the only offensive lineman to play every snap, and he did an admirable job blocking nose tackle Steve McClendon and the Steelers’ interior guys. Rookie Tre’ Jackson was a little inconsistent in pass protection, but he had a really nice pull block to spring Lewis for a nice run. Nate Solder was inconsistent, combining with Josh Kline on one play to pave a huge lane for Lewis, but also committed two penalties for 25 yards and had at least one bad whiff.
When the Steelers had the ball
■ Now that Revis and Brandon Browner are gone, and the Patriots have an unproven secondary, they’re going to play more zone coverage, right? Well, not against the Steelers. They played man coverage on 49 snaps (including penalties) and zone concepts on 15. And in the second half, the Patriots appeared to use a hybrid defense with Malcolm Butler manned up on Antonio Brown and the rest of the defense in Cover 2, although you never know if it’s just a miscommunication.
■ Not going to fret about the run defense yet, even with DeAngelo Williams rushing for 127 yards on 6.0 yards per carry. The Patriots’ main concern was keeping Roethlisberger contained in the pocket, and not giving up the deep pass, as they played a lot of two-deep safety, with Duron Harmon sprinting back 10 to 20 yards after the snap.
Once Dominique Easley went down, the Patriots used a light front, with only one true defensive tackle on the field (Sealver Siliga or Alan Branch) and used Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and rookie edge rusher Geneo Grissom at the other defensive tackle spot. And safety Patrick Chung was used as a linebacker most of the game, playing in the box and covering TE Heath Miller.
Yes, the Steelers churned out a lot of yards, but the Patriots only allowed one touchdown in the Steelers’ first eight drives, and took the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands on key plays such as the third and goal from the 6.
■ Not the best tackling day from the Patriots. I counted three missed tackles for Jamie Collins, two for Butler, and one each for Harmon, Jabaal Sheard, Dont’a Hightower, and Ninkovich. Butler and Devin McCourty also let potential interceptions go right through their hands.
■ The Patriots rarely blitzed Roethlisberger, instead opting to contain him instead of giving him big-play opportunities. I counted only three five-man blitzes, and three zone blitzes on 40 drop-backs, although the Patriots did a good job of showing the double “A” gap pressure with Collins and Hightower and confusing backup center Cody Wallace. Hightower raced into the backfield untouched through the “A” gap for his sack. Sheard embarrassed LT Kelvin Beachum on his sack, blowing right past him.
■ Butler certainly got a baptism by fire in covering Brown, allowing him to catch nine of 10 passes for 133 yards and a garbage TD. But it won’t get any tougher than Brown, one of the quickest and best route-runners in the NFL. Butler was competitive and showed he can hang with Brown.
■ Tarell Brown did a really nice job against Markus Wheaton and looks like he could be a find. Bradley Fletcher looked like he lost track of his receiver a few times, but it’s unclear if he was in man or Cover 2 defense. Chung got exposed trying to cover Miller, allowing three catches in four targets and getting called for pass interference in the end zone. Harmon showed tremendous range on his interception, sprinting from the right hash on the 30-yard line all the way to the left sideline at the 6 to pick off the deep pass.
■ No big plays or major issues, other than Brandon Bolden completely whiffing on a block and almost allowing a blocked punt in the fourth quarter. Matthew Slater and Jonathan Freeny did a great job bottling up Antonio Brown on punt coverage. And long snapper Joe Cardona had a clean performance in his first NFL game.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.