While the New England Patriots defense looked superb against the overmatched Pittsburgh Steelers offense, the pass rush was still conspicuously absent.
Trying to find fault in the New England Patriots‘ performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 of the brand new season is a little bit like trying to pinpoint the worst flavor at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor.
Sure, you might be able to make a compelling argument for why it’s Daiquiri Ice, Rum Raisin, or whatever other flavor does or doesn’t suit your particular fancy. At the end of the day though, you’re still eating ice cream, when you could be eating… well, anything else.
On Sunday Night Football against the Steelers, the Patriots showed the world why they’re still the NFL’s very best flavor – even if they’re far from the country’s most popular outside of the six New England states. Tom Brady played like a man half his own age, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett were virtually uncoverable, and Bill Belichick’s defense stymied any and all threats from Ben Roethlisberger and company.
As has become a ritual of sorts over the past two decades, the Patriots once again proved that the Steelers shouldn’t really be considered a rival in the truest sense of the word. If anything, Pittsburgh has become New England’s kid brother in the AFC, a familiar foe that just can’t seem to break free from all the bullying and constant battering that accompanies such a dynamic.
So what can still be improved upon after such a masterful and impressive beatdown?
Belichick surely will have plenty of fodder in that department to discuss in practice and in the film room on Wednesday. Over his many years as head coach, he has mastered the art of building his team up when they need the necessary jolt of confidence, or bringing them back down to earth when their heads might be getting a bit too big. (Who can forget his healthy servings of “humble pie” to great Patriots teams of years past, after all?)
This has the makings of another “humble pie” year up in Foxborough. The defense should be even better than the incarnation that held the Los Angeles Rams to just three points in Super Bowl 53. They did the same thing to the Steelers on opening night – and that was without Kyle Van Noy, second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams, and a number of other key contributors. The offense also looks more stacked than expected with the surprise additions of Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown.
If there is an area to improve, it probably starts with the run game on offense, and with the pass rush on defense. Sony Michel couldn’t get much going on the ground early against Pittsburgh, with the Steelers selling out to prevent any of the classic smashmouth offense that the Patriots rolled with during last year’s postseason.
He should have an easier time against the woeful Miami Dolphins this Sunday, but what about the defense? Is there anything that can be improved upon for a unit that surrendered just 32 yards on the ground and three points on the scoreboard?
A quick glance at the stats sheet would seem to suggest that the passing defense could be improved, considering Roethlisberger was able to finish with 276 yards through the air, 78 of which went to No. 1 wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. But those numbers don’t really tell the full story.
Big Ben averaged just 5.9 yards per pass on the evening, completed only 57% of his attempts, and finished with a quarterback rating of 65.6. His counterpart on the other sideline, Brady, had a rating nearly double that at 124.9. Heck, even New England wide receiver Julian Edelman had a better quarterback rating at 118.8!
Most of Pittsburgh’s yards (particularly Smith-Schuster’s) came in garbage time with the game already well out of reach. As is often the case when the Patriots rack up a big lead over their opponent, the other team is then forced to spend the rest of the game throwing the ball down the field to try and play catch-up. This cause-and-effect inevitably and annually contributes to New England having mediocre defensive ratings when it comes to yards allowed, while still maintaining top marks in scoring defense and defensive efficiency ratings.
If there is a place to nitpick this Patriots D, it probably revolves around the pass rush. Despite adding newcomers like Michael Bennett and Chase Winovich to the roster, New England finished with just one sack, three quarterback pressures, and 1.5 tackles for loss on the night.
To be fair, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is notorious for evading pressure from oncoming defenders. He has underrated pocket mobility, not to mention sheer size and strength – Bennett recently said that trying to bring him down is like “tackling a truck,” per USA Today’s Henry McKenna.
Still, it would have been encouraging to see Bennett, Winovich, Deatrich Wise, or Jamie Collins have a more pronounced night in terms of the final box score when it came to creating pressure and getting into the opponents’ backfield. Those players – along with others like John Simon, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy (when he returns) – are expected to improve a Patriots pass rush that many fans and analysts had concerns about entering the 2019 season.
While we don’t necessarily believe those concerns are entirely legitimate or worthy of worry in the long run, it’s still something worth monitoring as the season progresses. If Belichick can drum up more pressure along his defensive line and from blitzing outside linebackers flying in off the edge, this defense has a chance to perhaps be historically great.
That’s how lock-down the secondary is this year. It’s so ironclad and immovable that eventually, it should allow more members of the unit to focus on attacking up front, rather than just defending against the long gain down the field.
Again, the key figures here are probably Bennett, Winovich, and Wise. Those three players above all others are being counted on for their ability to get after the quarterback and create mayhem on defense. The sooner they get going, the better off this defense is going to be… not that it really has that much to improve upon in the first place.