Steelers could pose problems if Patriots plan to lean on backs in the passing game

Steelers could pose problems if Patriots plan to lean on backs in the passing game

FOXBORO - As we get closer and closer to kickoff between the Patriots and Steelers on Sunday night, it's fair to wonder how Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels are going to move the football through the air. 

We've heard both Bill Belichick and Brady suggest that we should keep our expectations for the team's receivers in check early on this season since so many of them either missed huge chunks of time or saw limited practice snaps with Brady this summer.

You'd assume Julian Edelman will hit the ground running. You'd assume Phillip Dorsett is a steady No. 3 or 4 option. But when it comes to Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas (on the injury report with a hamstring issue), Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, it's hard to know what the Patriots are getting at wideout. 

At tight end, Ryan Izzo is the only healthy player at Brady's disposal. While he had some success as a receiver in preseason, he's not a dynamic athlete who's likely to post huge numbers in his first regular-season action as a pro. 

That leaves the running backs. 

And that position may be what saves the Patriots passing attack as their receivers get their feet under them in 2019. McDaniels has plenty of pass-catching threats like James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris. Even Sony Michel -- the skill position player with the most drastic run-pass splits in football in 2018 -- has shown some receiver chops this summer. The versatility of the unit is part of the reason the Patriots have allocated more active-roster cap dollars to backs than any other team in football.

So, we should expect White to see somewhere in the range of double-digit targets in the opener? Maybe another five or six spread out to others at the position? Right?

Turns out Pittsburgh might be well-suited to stop them.

The Steelers drafted speedy linebacker Devin Bush at No. 10 overall in the spring. Reports out of Pittsburgh suggest he'll be used as a specialty sub-situation 'backer, which makes sense since he's probably one of the NFL's best athletes at the position already. Vince Williams looks like an option for them against heavier offensive personnel groupings, and free-agent acquisition Mark Barron -- the safety-turned-linebacker the Patriots saw in Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Rams -- is their every-down guy. 

"I think a lot of teams have more hybrid-type roles than probably what they were when I first started, where there was a base defense and a sub defense," Brady said Wednesday. "Now I think we have a lot of those guys that can rush, that can cover. Guys like Mark Barron started in the secondary at Tampa, and now plays linebacker, played linebacker for the Rams last year. So, we have experience with those type of players. 

"We have backs that catch a lot of passes, line up in a lot of different spots, tight ends that line up in a lot of different spots. So, it's more of a game of that now. There's more personnel groupings, guys are utilized formationing, and they're finding defenders to counteract the skill set of the offensive players too. You know, you have a tight end that's a great run blocker and a great pass catcher, well now they have people to cover that guy, but also play against the run too. 

"That goes for linebackers, secondary types, but people are trying to use their best athletes out there and get as much skill and size as they can to create matchups, whatever they feel are the best to help their team win."

Barron is the definition of a hybrid given his background. As a key piece to what the Rams did defensively last season. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots completed just three passes to running backs on eight targets for a total of 20 yards. Turn the clock back a little further to when the Patriots went against the Steelers in December, before Mike Tomlin's defense got more athletic at the second level, and the Patriots picked up only 33 yards on 10 targets to White and Burkhead.

The Patriots could try to get the Steelers to go lighter at linebacker with Barron and Bush on the field -- deploying their 11-personnel grouping might work -- in order to run the football. That's what they did against LA's lighter front in the Super Bowl. But the Steelers have been stout against the run in the recent past as well. With a front that features big-bodied linemen Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt, they were sixth in the league in rush yards allowed per game in 2018 and ninth in the league in rush yards allowed per attempt. 

The Patriots did, however, run it well against them late last season in their Week 15 loss. On 19 attempts, they picked up 96 yards (an average of 5.1 yards per attempt) -- 58 of which came after contact.

The answer then? It'll probably be for the Patriots to stick with what we think will be their bread and butter: the running game. When they are forced to throw, attacking Steven Nelson and former AAF safety Kameron Kelly probably won't be a bad idea. 

Eventually, it'll make sense to pepper Patriots backs in the passing game. But this week, with Pittsburgh's speed at the second level, that might be tougher than most.


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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.


Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 


LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 


In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."


Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.