By Mike DeVito
When the Patriots are on offense
As strange as it is to say the Patriots’ offense needs to get back on track. The most amazing stat that I’ve seen in the NFL this season is that the Patriots went 0 for 11 on 3rd downs against Miami and almost more astounding is the fact that they still scored 20 points in the game! Think about that, the Patriots didn’t convert a single 3rd down, which sounds like something that could only happen in Cleveland, and New England still scored two offensive touch downs.
Having Gronk back will really help on third down conversions as this season, with the absence of Julian Edelman, 87 has become the man of the house on 3rd downs. If Brady is hurt (some suspect based on how he played last week that there might be more to his “Achilles” injury than most think,) you have got to get the run game going. Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis were lights out two weeks ago in Buffalo, but last week in Miami both struggled to gain yards consistently behind New England’s suddenly shaky offensive line.
Speaking of the offensive line, the loss of Marcus Cannon really hurts this unit. The offensive line will have to account for Cameron Hayward, who is one of the best and most underrated lineman in the NFL. Not only can Hayward get after the quarterback, (9 sacks) the Patriots ground game would benefit from running away from him as well. Last week I said the Patriots needed to attack the Dolphins linebackers because they struggled in coverage, especially on tight ends. With Gronk out and Dwayne Allen the only remaining option, the Patriots could not take advantage of this mismatch. This week, New England can have a mulligan, (Matthew?) as the Steelers are in a similar boat with Sean Spence filling in at MLB for the injured Ryan Shazier. Spence has been in Pittsburgh before, but was released by the Colts in October and just signed back by the Steelers two weeks ago.
When the Patriots are on defense
The Patriots have to stop the “Killer B’s”, Ben, Bell and Brown. (Good luck.) The Patriots will have Malcolm Butler cover Antonio Brown like they did last year, and Butler needs to press Brown at the line of scrimmage and have defensive coordinator Matt Patricia brings in safety or added cornerback coverage over the top. Last Sunday night against Baltimore, the Ravens got torched by Brown running the same go route, because they tried to go one-on-one with no safety help. If I was Ben, I wouldn’t expect to see Brown matched in man coverage one-on-one at all.
The Patriots defensive line needs to play as sound technique wise as possible, for 3 reasons.
One is that the Patriots aren’t generating much of a pass rush, which could get a boost if Trey Flowers is active.
Two, the reason to stay patient against Pittsburgh is Le’Veon Bell’s hesitation-at-the line-of-scrimmage run style. Bell baits you into over pursuit and then burns you with his speed and power.
Three, staying in your gaps if you’re the Patriots is important because even at this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger can still pick up big plays with his legs if he has lanes. Big Ben is one of the smartest quarterbacks when it comes to pulling the ball down and running with it.
Win the turnover ratio
In big games like this, with two teams evenly matched, one way to get an advantage is to steal some extra possessions. Protect the ball on offense and attack the ball on defense. Tom Brady has thrown four interceptions in the last 3 games. There are seasons when Brady hasn’t throw that many picks. New England will have to take care of the ball themselves, but also force Pittsburgh to give up one if they’re going to win this big game on the road.
Prediction: Pit 28 NE 21
Mike DeVito is a Maine alum and veteran of 9 season in the NFL with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs. Mike is a guest host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live on DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.