Patriots

Brady's feeling the pain of inadequate protection

Brady's feeling the pain of inadequate protection

Tom Brady’s hurt. He’s not expected to miss any time, but, considering how often he’s been hit, the fact that he's hurt shouldn’t come as a surprise. Brady has been under siege, especially these last few weeks, absorbing far too many big shots, even for someone who’s quite adept at minimizing the damage.

Many fingers have been pointed in Nate Solder’s direction, and on Tuesday the Patriots left tackle admitted that he’s struggling.

“I haven’t had a lot of great plays,” he said when I asked, adding “I’ve had some bad plays and I have to minimize those and start playing good and doing what I’m capable of doing, playing with this group and just improving every week.”

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels wouldn’t single out Solder during Monday’s conference call; both pointed to the entire offensive unit needing to play each play together. They’re right. It’s been Solder on one play, then Marcus Cannon on the next. The interior offensive line has also had issues as times -- just go back to the Texans game -- and backup tight end Dwayne Allen was exposed a couple of times as well during the recent Thursday night game in Tampa. 

Brady has been sacked 16 times this year and hit 19 more times by my count. If you’re keeping score at home, Cannon has surrendered four sacks, Solder three, Joe Thuney and David Andrews a pair each and Shaq Mason -- the best of the offensive line by far this season -- just once. A couple of those sacks belong to Brady himself for not recognizing the free rusher.

Regardless, the bottom line is Number 12 has been on the ground far too often.

“We definitely have to protect him better,” said running back James White. “We haven’t been doing a great job. Everybody as a whole, we got to do a better job with protection, [have] everybody be on the same page and just [block] as long as possible to keep that guy off the ground.”

“Always, always want keep the quarterback clean,” said Allen. “Guys make plays, you know, but the biggest thing for us is to keep Tom clean.”

Solder expressed concern, saying, “We hate to see him get hit. We hate to see him get hit,” he repeated for emphasis. “Keeping him clean, keeping him upright, that’s our goal every week.”

Despite a highly regarded and well-paid defensive line, this weekend’s opponent, the New York Jets, have struggled getting to the QB, with just a half-dozen sacks and 17 total hits according to the analytic website, Pro Football Focus. That should give you some confidence, but until this group of offensive linemen, tight ends and backs sharpens their play, Brady is at risk, and the bullseye on him grows with news of the injury. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic

patriots_steelers_brady_102416.jpg

Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic

FOXBORO -- It's time for Keith Butler to make good on his promise.

"We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots," the Steelers defensive coordinator told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan over the summer. “You look at the people who have beaten the Patriots in the past and a lot of them played man-to-man. I think the last time we beat them [in 2011], we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”

MORE PATRIOTS-STEELERS


If the Steelers were to play tight man-to-man Sunday -- taking a page from the Dolphins, Texans and others who've given Tom Brady trouble in the past -- they'll be giving the Patriots something different than what they saw last year in the AFC title game. 

But so far at least, according to Bill Belichick, they're essentially running the same scheme they were a year ago. 

Instead the defensive changes the Steelers have made compared to a year ago have been more personnel-based. Back in the mix is Cam Heyward, a dominant interior defensive lineman. Longtime Browns corner Joe Haden was added to the roster and could return from a broken leg he suffered last month. Out is arguably the team's top defender, linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a scary season-ending back injury on Monday Night Football last week.

Because Shazier was so critical to everything the Steelers did defensively, they have no one-for-one replacement and they've been forced to adjust without him, Belichick explained Wednesday. 

"They’ve had to replace him," he said. "They’ve played more dime defense with him out. They’re primarily a nickel team going back to last year when it was [Lawrence] Timmons and Shazier. A lot of nickel this year. They’ve played a little more dime this year and in the last couple of weeks in third-down situations -- not on early downs. I'd say that would be the biggest change. That’s not really a change, but that has shown up."

Base. Nickel. Dime. Whatever the package, the Steelers still seem to favor matchup-zones. They're a group that loves to pressure and blitz from those looks, and now without Shazier (and potentially Haden), a shift to more man-to-man might be unrealistic. 

Shazier's size and athleticism allows him to shadow backs and tight ends. If the Steelers choose to replace him in passing situations with a defensive back -- as Belichick suggests they have -- then that should open up opportunities for the Patriots to run the football.

If that's the case, the ripple effect feels predictable. 

The Steelers could be forced to bring an extra defender into the box to stop the New England ground game. That removes one body from the secondary. And if Butler's calling for zone defenses -- because he doesn't like his 'backers manned-up on Patriots backs, or his safeties on Rob Gronkowski -- then that gives Patriots pass-catchers more room to operate and wider windows for Brady to throw through. 

All of a sudden it's the AFC Championship Game again. 

It seems like an almost impossible decision for Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin. Do they try to survive with the schemes that have gotten them to 11-2, even if Tom Brady's proven time and again that he can dice them up? Or do they trust a shaky set of man defenders against one of the most high-powered offenses in football?

The Steelers could try to get by with defensive backs jamming at the line of scrimmage, hope to upset Brady's timing, and let Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, TJ Watt and Bud Dupree do their best to get into the Patriots backfield. But that may be asking a lot of a unit that just gave up 38 points to Joe Flacco and the NFL's No. 27 offense in yards per game. 

Unfortunately for Butler, with the players he has at his disposal, the game plan he cooked up for the Patriots this summer may already be shot.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

cp-steelers-ravens-alex-collins-mike-mitchell-121417xx.jpg

Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

FOXBORO -- Ryan Shazier’s frightening injury has created a big void in the Steelers' defense. He was the link between the front and back ends, and his speed, quickness and intelligence allowed him to stay on the field for three downs, giving Pittsburgh a necessary element of flexibility in a league where that’s key. 

In their first full game without Shazier, the Steelers had to lean on three different players to do the job of one, and the results were quite concerning for the AFC North leaders. They surrendered 38 points to the Baltimore Ravens, whose quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been one of the worst players at his position this year. 

MORE PATRIOTS-STEELERS

“This is a game of confidence,” said Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. “You have to go into this game knowing, ‘Hey, I belong in this position and this is what we’re going to do.’ And when you have a call sometimes and you’re going to be like ‘I know what they’re doing,’ you have to go for it.”

That clearly didn’t happen nearly enough for Pittsburgh in that one-point win. Perhaps it was the emotional letdown of knowing Shazier not only won’t be coming back this year but perhaps had his life altered by his spinal injury. You can’t dismiss that. This isn’t a player suffering an ankle, knee or shoulder injury. This is something far greater.

But it sure sounds like the message this week is to put that in the rearview mirror as best you can and -- stop me if you’ve heard this before -- do your job.

“It’s telling guys, ‘You don’t have to do more than what is asked of you,’” defensive end Cam Heyward told the gathered media earlier this week. “‘You don’t have to be Superman, we just need your best.’

“Our defense is designed for us to just do our 1/11th, guys have to understand that. Going against the best, they’ll exploit it. But if you come back at ’em and say, ‘I’m going to do my job because I trust my teammates and I expect the best out of everybody else,’ then you’re going to be successful no matter what.”

The Steelers gave up 413 yards to Baltimore, the second-highest total of year, and the 38 points allowed topped the charts. Sean Spence, Arthur Moats and L.J. Fort took turns trying to fill Shazier’s shoes, with Spence getting the most snaps. He was signed a little over a week ago, adding another layer to Pittsburgh’s challenge.

“It’s a lot harder because as guys go down and you have multiple guys stepping in, you have to be even more crisp,” said Heyward. “You have to have even more execution, and obviously we didn’t. But you have guys playing new positions, they have to understand, ‘We’re not just putting you in here just to put you in here. We’re expecting big results. We expect you to go out there and do it.’ "

Now the Steelers must face their toughest challenge yet, a Patriots offense that has scorched them year after year and will also get its best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, back from his one-game suspension for a late hit on Tre’Davious White in Buffalo.

“Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” said coach Mike Tomlin. “Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one.”

A presence the Pats may be able to exploit, considering Shazier did a fair amount of coverage work versus tight ends. 

“We need more. We need better,” said Tuitt. “And I think we have the players to do it.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE