PITTSBURGH —The gaps were wider than the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers and Jaylen Samuels flowed through them calmly and consistently.
For the third straight week the Patriots defensive front was dominated by their opponent, leading to another huge rushing opponent. New England has allowed 7.49 yards per rush over its last three games, the worst stretch in franchise history according to Pro Football Reference.
It was particularly glaring in Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Steelers as Samuels, who’s never been a full-time running back, carved out 142 yards on 19 carries.
The Patriots couldn’t shed their blocks at the point of attack quick enough to delay Samuels and the second-level defenders couldn’t fill the gaps adequately enough to detour the rookie back.
Pittsburgh delivered an early message that it was going to try and stress a defense that gave up 190 yards in Miami the previous week.
Samuels picked up 25 yards on a nifty misdirection on the first drive of the game.
Samuels set up to Ben Roethlisberger’s right in the shotgun formation. Roethlisberger shovels it to Samuels on what appears at first glance to be a strong side toss as the back is lined up almost directly behind tight end Vance McDonald.
However, McDonald pulls to his left and gets just enough of Patrick Chung to take the Patriots’ safety out of the play, effectively turning a strong side toss into a weak side toss.
Samuels follows McDonald left and has a massive opening to run through courtesy of his offensive line.
Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva held up Trey Flowers, left guard Ramon Foster locked on to Lawrence Guy and pushed him back, and center Maurkice Pouncey occupied Malcom Brown just long enough for Samuels to scoot by. With nobody filling the lanes, Samuels quickly got into the secondary where he was finally forced out.
The counter toss play worked effectively for most of the afternoon as the Patriots employed a lot of dime defense (six defensive backs) against the Steelers. This meant fewer snaps for middle linebacker Elandon Roberts, who is known for his ability to get downhill quickly, fill gaps, and thwart the run. Pittsburgh ran 11 times for 106 yards when the Patriots were in their dime packages.
“I can read the whole front and take it any way I want based off how the linemen block it and what kind of front the defense is in,’’ Samuels said, explaining why the scheme was so effective. “I just tried to find a crease and make a play — make somebody miss and get north as many yards as I can.’’
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the Patriots dropped to 3-5 on the road this season.
■ Pocket perfection.
Roethlisberger’s ability to subtly slide in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield while chaos is erupting all around him is remarkable.
Best example came on third and 9 with just 3:14 left when he hit Samuels with a 20-yard completion. That key conversion forced the Patriots to start burning their timeouts.
Samuel again lined up to Big Ben’s right. At the snap he delivered a good chip block on Kyle Van Noy before slipping out into coverage.
As Roethlisberger rolled right under pressure, John Simon, who had initially picked up Samuels in coverage, charged toward the quarterback, leaving Samuels alone.
Roethlisberger saw it and calmly hit him with a completion.
■ Pocket pressure.
Tom Brady, who has some of the best mechanics in the game, wasn’t always able to set his feet and throw. Examining New England’s final drive, you see the best and worst of this.
On his first throw after the two-minute warning, Brady steps up and delivers a seed down the middle to Julian Edelman. On three of his final four throws (all incompletions though one was wiped out by penalty) the Steelers turned up the pressure and Brady sailed his throw.
On the final play of the game Brady is actually falling away as he throws it to the end zone where it fell incomplete.
■ Flag football.
The amount of penalties continues to be troublesome as New England was hit with 14 accepted calls for 106 yards. Most of the flags were legitimate, with the holdings on Marcus Cannon (on the penultimate drive) and Shaq Mason (on the final drive) being costly.
Perhaps the infraction that stung the most, however, was the ticky-tack 26-yard pass interference call on Jonathan Jones at 12:12 of the second quarter.
Jones and receiver Eli Rogers had minimal contact as Roethlisberger’s sideline route fell incomplete right in front of the side judge, who kept his hanky in his pocket. The back judge, however, came in very late — and from about 30 yards away — and threw his flag.
Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a touchdown on the very next play and the Steelers held the lead from that point on.
■ Special efforts.
New England’s special teams turned in the play of the season when Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead both made leaping deflections to keep Ryan Allen’s 52-yard punt out of the end zone.
The pair pulled off a textbook volleyball bump and spike to force the Steelers to start from the 1. The body control both players displayed was impressive and after watching the play several times — including a great view from the pylon cam — Jones’s effort even before he touched the ball was notable.
Jones got hit in the back and knocked down by Artie Burns (You can actually hear someone on the Steeler sideline yell “Artie, Artie!” as he sneaks off the field following the hit, which wasn’t flagged) but got back up and still performed his acrobatic tip.
■ Fake and bake.
When the Patriots scored on their third play from scrimmage it seemed a shootout was unfolding but they never sniffed the end zone again. The 63-yard pass from Brady to Chris Hogan was brilliant.
New England had Hogan, Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all lined up left. At the snap, Edelman and Gronkowski went right and Hogan ran an in route. Brady fake handoffs to Burkhead and Edelman, while Gronkowski walled off T.J. Watt.
Two Steeler defenders were caught looking in the backfield and fell for the play action and neither picked up Hogan who caught the ball and sailed into the end zone.
■ Corner coverage.
The stellar play of Stephon Gilmore should come as no surprise, but the emergence of J.C. Jackson might. Both cornerbacks were outstanding in their work against Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Gilmore’s signature play of the day led to Duron Harmon’s second interception and gave the Patriots a chance to take the lead. Gilmore first bumped Rogers, then got his hands on Brown and, while falling, knocked the ball out of Brown’s hands into Harmon’s.
Jackson was on Smith-Schuster the entire game and allowed just three catches for 39 yards and had a pass break-up.