With Bell and Bryant out, Steelers lean even more on Brown


With Bell and Bryant out, Steelers lean even more on Brown

FOXBORO -- Antonio Brown isn’t built like Megatron, Larry Fitzgerald or even Dez Bryant, but there was no more productive wide receiver in the NFL last year than the Steelers premier pass catcher. 129 receptions, nearly 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns. Even in a league that’s made playing in the secondary damn near impossible, that’s some kind of year.

Is it possible for Brown to be even more involved in Pittsburgh’s offense on Thursday night, especially as they deal with the suspensions of star tailback Le’Veon Bell and number-two wideout Martavis Bryant?

“Could they get him the ball more?” questioned a bemused Bill Belichick. “I guess they could. But they get it to him a lot. He's definitely a go-to guy in the passing game, not just in terms of just making plays and {Ben} Roethlisberger going to him, but in terms of scheme, and plays that are designed to -- if not get him the ball -- at least get him a look. Then if the defense takes him away, they can go somewhere else, but at least get him a look at it.”

Brown measures at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he plays bigger than that. You see that in his ability to go up and catch the ball at its highest point. While that’s a big deal, Belichick notes it’s Brown’s feet that are the initial difference maker. 

“He's got really good quickness so he's got the ability to get separation, even when guys are close to him, his one-step or two-step quickness to get away," Belichick said. "And he's got really good hands, so he doesn't need a lot of separation.” 

But with Brown, it goes beyond that. He’s one of those receivers with that innate ability to get open, processing information quickly both pre-snap and as he gets off the line of scrimmage.

“Even if you're in a good leverage position and you have him covered or you have him covered downfield, he's really smart enough to understand what the coverage is, how the coverage leverage works and be able to work off of it,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in a conference call earlier in the week.

Belichick echoed those thoughts Monday morning.

“He's a good technique route-runner, so he does a really good job of making routes look the same that are different,” he said “Making the inside route and the outside look the same or the over and the corner route look the same. Things like that. His releases are good. He does a good job of at the line of scrimmage of getting into his route and attacking the defense quickly.” 

Todd Haley, the Steelers' offensive coordinator, has been smart enough to move Brown across the formation. He’ll line up anywhere, and that’s an added headache for Patricia’s defense. Do the Pats decide to take their best cover corner in Malcolm Butler and have him shadow Brown all over? Or do they stick to what they’ve done throughout the preseason, leaving Butler on the left side and trust that Bradley Fletcher, Tarell Brown and Logan Ryan can hold their own? The latter seems like a risky proposition because it’s difficult to always get help over the top on someone as quick a Brown is.

As you would imagine, Belichick didn’t tip his hand to which way the Pats were leaning. 

“This is not the kind of guy you want to back off, let them throw it to him and then come up and make the tackle. That'll be a challenge,” he said. “On the other hand you don't want him to get over the top of the defense either. He's a huge problem.”

One that must be solved, or the Pats will find themselves in an unwanted shootout against as good a receiver as they’ll face at any point this season.

Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

We've already taken a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts for the Patriots. There was the two-back stretch, the smash route, the post-wheel and the high-low crosser. Today, we'll focus on yet another key offensive play for the Patriots, one they broke out in the Super Bowl when they needed to spark a drive: the slip screen. 

There were points last year when the Patriots weren't thrilled with their production in the screen game. The assignments weren't executed perfectly. The timing was off. The production simply wasn't there. 

"Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be," Bill Belichick said on a conference call in November. "We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing."

But they stuck with it. Their offensive linemen are required to be athletes. (Just ask Dante Scarnecchia.) Their backfield was loaded with backs who can catch and make defenders miss in the open field. The screen game still has a chance, the thinking went. 

And in the biggest game of the season, when the Patriots needed to get a drive kick-started after going down 15-3 in the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, they turned to their screen game again.

In the fifth entry of our "Signature Plays" series, one that identifies some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations, we'll take a look at how many elements are involved in one of New England's slip screens - and why, with the personnel the Patriots have in 2018, it should be a staple for their offense again.  


THE CONCEPT: If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction, there's going to be an opportunity for a chunk play. If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction twice? That's gold. 

That's what a slip screen can do. By countering a defense's aggressiveness - the Eagles had an aggressive, relentless front that helped make them Super Bowl champions - the benefit of a play such as a slip screen can actually be twofold: First, if a big play is created, there's some immediate offensive gratification there; but second, a big play on one screen might help temper an opposing pass rush for the remainder of the game. 

The Patriots got the Eagles to pursue upfield hard on the first play of their drive midway through the second quarter. But they also got Philly's defense to pursue horizontally on a fake that ended up taking multiple defenders out of the play. 

THE PLAY: The Patriots aligned in a two-by-two formation with Tom Brady under center and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. On the opposite side of the line, the Eagles went with their standard single-high safety coverage on first down. They appeared to be in Cover-3 zone. 

Phillip Dorsett aligned wide to the right side of the formation with Danny Amendola in the slot. When Dorsett went in motion, the slot defender over Amendola took off to mirror the motion and help balance out Philly's defense. 

When Brady snapped the ball, he faked a handoff to Burkhead and then faked an end-around run to Dorsett. The Patriots have run so many of those jet-sweep types of runs in recent seasons, that the Eagles respected it. Not only did one defensive back mirror Dorsett's motion, but the fake to Dorsett appeared to help hold a pair of Eagles defenders on the offensive left side of the field. 

That's exactly what the Patriots were looking for since Burkhead was about to slip out to the right, into a wide open area of the field. 

One key to this play is the block of the right tackle -- in this case Cam Fleming. He needs to be a little soft here. Why? Because if he stonewalls his man at the line of scrimmage, that clogs things up for Burkhead. Again, he's slipping out to the right. So the right tackle has to bait his man into getting up the field, which Fleming does here. With the Eagles shading to Dorsett's motion, and with the left defensive end climbing up the field, the seas are about to part for Burkhead.

Not only does Burkhead have space to run, but he has a wall of bodyguards to escort up up the field. Shaq Mason, David Andrews and Joe Thuney have all freed themselves of the clutter at the line as Brady makes his throw. Because the motion did its job, it'll be a while before any of the big bodies have to throw themselves around.

The first block made is by Shaq Mason on safety Malcolm Jenkins, who read the dummy motion and flowed to the ball correctly. Still, Jenkins has no shot against Mason and is smothered. 

Then it's up to Andrews and Thuney. Backside linebacker Nigel Bradham flows to the ball, but Thuney gets in Bradham's way just enough to eliminate him. Andrews, meanwhile, has no problem blocking boundary corner Jalen Mills. 

But Burkhead wasn't done even as his first layer of protection was strewn about. He had another line of defense further down the field. Chris Hogan, who began the play aligned wide left, made sure the corner assigned to his side of the field was walled off. Then Amendola, who feigned a deep crossing route but was really focused on safety Rodney McLeod all along, made sure the deep-middle man would be a non-factor. 

The result was a huge gain that eventually ended in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. 

THE PLAY IN 2018: Burkhead is back in 2018, though several Patriots backs could find themselves on the field in screen situations. James White and Sony Michel could both be in the mix for this play moving forward. Other key players return as well. Brady, obviously. Plus the three-man interior that moves well enough to make these types of plays possible. The Patriots should begin the season with Marcus Cannon as the bait-and-screen right tackle on these calls, which is an upgrade. And if the Patriots can swap in Julian Edelman for Amendola -- Edelman is as feisty a blocker as his teammate-turned-division-foe -- they should have the right mix to continue to rip off the occasional big gain with their slip screens. 


Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

What's made the Patriots so successful for so long? Continuity. As part of that, we take a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts that they'll likely turn to again this season with old and new personnel. Click here for the full series.