The New England Patriots—just saying the name causes chills to run down the backs of Pittsburgh Steelers fans everywhere. Images of Tom Brady coming off of the bench in 2001 come to mind, and in the 2004 game, watching Rodney Harrison walk into the end zone after a Ben Roethlisberger interception still haunts most diehard fans.
So, with these two teams squaring off again, this time in Gillette Stadium, I wanted to get the lowdown for the upcoming game from the Patriots perspective. You know — how the offense is handling the loss of Rob Gronkowski, how annoying it is that Tom Brady is almost 40 and he’s still shredding the rest of the NFL, and how confident Patriots fans are heading into the AFC Championship game.
I was able to ask Rich Hill, editor of Pats Pulpit (SB Nation’s Patriots website), the following questions:
(Editor’s Note: Some of these answers have been used in stand alone articles, but this is the complete interview for your viewing pleasure.)
The New England Patriots seem to be a different team without Rob Gronkowski. What exactly are the Patriots doing to mask his absence?
The Patriots have changed their offense to be a more 3-receiver offense, instead of the 2-tight end offense that played at a high level when both Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were available. Rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell emerged as a great contributor (he had the most red zone receptions of any player in the league during the final few weeks of the year), while WR Julian Edelman cranked his performance up a notch (he's put together the two best games of his career in Week 17 and the divisional round). The Patriots have also seen RB Dion Lewis return to form after missing most of the season with his knee injury.
I think the Patriots’ performance against the Ravens highlights their offensive success after losing Gronk. Five different players recorded 70+ yards on the day, not including Lewis or Mitchell. There are just so many different players capable of carrying the New England offense.
Tom Brady seems to be a player who never gets older, but although he seems as sharp as ever, his game is due to slip in some areas. Have you noticed anything where Brady isn't as good as he used to be? And if so, which areas would those be?
Honestly, I can't say he's gotten worse in any particular area. Since a poor showing in 2013 (connected to injury and turnover on offense), Brady's improved his mobility, he's improved his pre-snap diagnosis, he's improved his deep ball, he's improved his ability to throw while on the move, and he's showing a greater command of the playbook than ever before. He's a player that will throw the ball away to avoid the sack, he'll take the easy throw to move the chains and fight again on another down, and he's typically going to turn it up a notch in the second half.
The only aspect of Brady's game that hasn't improved since 2013 (he's gotten better in every rating stat in each subsequent year), is his decision to lock onto one target if the offense is struggling. If the Steelers hit Brady a few times in a row, his next five passes will all go to the same receiver (usually Edelman). But that's always been a problem, dating back to Troy Brown and Randy Moss, so it's not like he's getting worse.
The Patriots' defense is very stout this year, especially against the run. Where are they vulnerable and have any teams had success on the ground against them in 2016?
The Patriots didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season, and they've only allowed one since Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams picked up 127 rushing yards in the 2015 season opener. The teams that have had the most success running against the Patriots were led by Tyrod Taylor (Week 8), Tyrod Taylor (Week 4) and Colin Kaepernick- a clear influence of the run option. Cardinals RB David Johnson had the most success against the Patriots this season with 89 rushing yards and a touchdown, but more than half of those yards (45) came on a single run.
No other opposing running back has a 30-yard run on the year. Of the 15 longest runs after Johnson's 45-yarder, eight have been by quarterbacks, one has been by a punter, and one has been by a wide receiver.
Bell is the most talented running back in the league and he will certainly produce on the field based on his natural ability. Just don't look at past Patriots games for an obvious blueprint for success, unless you want Roethlisberger scrambling for yardage.
The Steelers and Patriots met at Heinz Field in Week 7. Other than the absence of Gronk, how do the Patriots look different now, both from a scheme and personnel standpoint?
On offense, it's hard to talk about change without discussing Gronkowski, but I guess there are a few clear changes. WR Julian Edelman has been a different player since the Patriots bye in Week 9, and he finished the year with more yards from scrimmage from Week 10 onward than any other receiver or tight end in the league. RB Dion Lewis has added another threat in the Patriots’ backfield, joining rushing touchdown champion RB LeGarrette Blount and elite receiving RB James White.
Possibly more important than any skill-position change has been New England's consistency on the offensive line. The Patriots really haven't rotated their line and they've improved their communication and performance on a weekly basis. The line was pretty okay in the first half of the season, but they've been dominant late in the year.
On defense, the Patriots have evolved. Week 7 was CB Eric Rowe's first start with the team, while CB Logan Ryan has finally recovered after a slow start to the year (He finished the season ranked #12 in Pro Football Focus' cornerback rankings). Jamie Collins is no longer at linebacker and current starter, Kyle Van Noy, was still on the Lions. Edge defender Trey Flowers has ascended to the top of the team's depth chart after playing 4th-string against the Steelers.
Players are a lot more confident on defense and it shows in the play-calling. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia believes the team has the playbook down and the responsibilities locked up, and he’s allowing for more exotic blitzes and pressures to get after the quarterback.
New England challenged Landry Jones to lead 10+ play drives and tried to drop back into coverage, inviting Jones to throw. They won't sit back and let Roethlisberger pick them apart.
What is the general vibe from Patriots fans heading into this game? Confidence in another Super Bowl berth, or not so sure about facing the dynamic Pittsburgh Steelers?
They're certainly less confident than they were last week against the Texans, but there's still a belief that the Patriots will reach another Super Bowl. They can point to Brady's success against the Steelers’ defense, and Roethlisberger's struggles on the road, and Bill Belichick's record against Pittsburgh, and the questionable depth behind Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in the Pittsburgh offense. They are also fully aware that Bell and Brown can uncork for 300+ yards apiece at any given moment, but there's justifiable confidence heading into this matchup.