Picked-up pieces from 3rd quarter review

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
10:20
PM ET
Picked-up pieces from third-quarter review of the New England Patriots' 55-31 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

1. The Steelers had 20 rushes for 108 yards in the game, and 55 of those yards came on two carries -- Jonathan Dwyer off the left side for 30 in the second quarter (Chris Jones, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Steve Gregory all part of the poor run defense) and Le'Veon Bell off right tackle for 25 in the third quarter. On Bell's run, which came out of the shotgun, the Steelers took advantage of veteran end Andre Carter taking himself out of the play by rushing too far up the field, which opened a nice hole. Linebacker Brandon Spikes got caught up in traffic in the middle and thus couldn't fill, while Gregory didn't take the best angle, and after that it was the 6-foot-1, 244-pound Bell in space. So the two big runs, as we saw it, were less about being gashed up the middle and more on the edges.

2. A general observation: One week after blitzing Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill 29 times (according to ESPN's Stats & Information), the Patriots hardly blitzed Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Patriots often showed blitz pre-snap, they often backed out as this was more of a coverage-heavy plan.

3. The dime package, which was responsible for the third-and-30 breakdown in the first half, was also on the field on receiver Jerricho Cotchery's 20-yard touchdown catch. Credit begins with Roethlisberger keeping the play alive, as the Patriots' four-man rush didn't provide enough disruption. Meanwhile, Cotchery came in motion before the snap from an outside position to create a stack with fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders, which led to immediate communication between the two Patriots cornerbacks across from them – Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington – and safety Gregory on that side. Gregory played Sanders' route to the outside to help Ryan, leaving Arrington in single coverage over the middle. It appeared the Patriots had safety Devin McCourty spying Roethlisberger on the play, leaving them with one less defender on the back end. That might have been the difference.

4. One of the consistent themes of the game was how the Patriots had success throwing against the Steelers' base defense (particularly with play-action), and in turn, also had success running against their dime defense (6 defensive backs). This showed up on a Stevan Ridley 9-yard run on a second-and-10 play with 5:38 remaining. Quarterback Tom Brady was in the shotgun, with Ridley to his right, and Ridley took the draw as left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins blocked down to create some running room off the left side. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui also held his ground on the edge to keep outside linebacker Jarvis Jones from making the play. Nicely executed out of the three-receiver set, keeping things manageable on third down.

5. After the Steelers tied the game at 24, we saw the Patriots use the quick snap in the running game three times. It produced solid results when they called on it. The quick snap can sometimes take away the aggressiveness of a defense, while also limiting substitutions, and that would be our guess as to why the Patriots had it in the plan. Once they got a matchup they liked (e.g. three wide receivers versus dime), they were content to stick with it and ride it out.

6. On Jones' second sack of the day, which came on the Steelers' opening drive of the third quarter (after Troy Polamalu's strip of Ridley), it was another case where the coverage aided the rush. One of the interesting parts of the play was that it was Jones' first rush at left defensive end, as he flipped sides after Rob Ninkovich had hobbled off after the previous play. Jones rushed out of a two-point stance, was chipped by running back Bell, but never let his motor stop running as right tackle Marcus Gilbert stood by as more of a spectator.

7. On the sack of Brady that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal to go up 27-24, left tackle Solder was just beaten on a speed rush by outside linebacker Jason Worilds. That's the second time three weeks we've seen that happen to Solder. Worilds lined up in a wide split and it looked like Solder just didn't get enough depth in his pass set, which allowed Worilds -- a player I believe the Patriots were eyeing in the second round of the 2010 draft before the Steelers took him -- to gain the edge and bring down Brady, who also faced pressure up the middle (Cameron Heyward again).

8. Spent a lot of time watching nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and while his work in short-yardage stood out, there was a Bell 9-yard run late in the third quarter that will likely be a good teaching tool for him on how the Patriots want him to play. At the snap, Sopoaga bull-rushed right guard Guy Whimper and penetrated into the backfield, but in doing so, created displacement in the wall that the Patriots generally like to build in the running game in the front-seven. As it turned out, the run play came through the gap that appeared to be Sopoaga's responsibility. We could see defensive line coach Patrick Graham using that play as a way to highlight the importance of patience when playing defensive tackle in the team's scheme (read-and-react versus initial penetration). That was one play where Sopoaga's newness to the team's scheme caught our eye.

9. Safety Tavon Wilson was penalized for holding fullback Will Johnson on the opening kickoff of the half, which marked the Patriots' seventh special teams penalty in the last three games. An area to clean up, for sure.

10. After shredding the Steelers in the first half with seven receptions, tight end Rob Gronkowski wasn't on the field for the first three plays of the opening drive. Wonder if that was some coaching gamesmanship type stuff, with the Patriots figuring the Steelers would have drawn up some adjustments at the half and made them wait on them a bit. Normally, the Patriots would just keep Gronkowski on the field, but since he was still on a limited snap count, perhaps that was part of the thinking.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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