PIT-NE grades: Trouble for Steelers’ O-line, defense

Here are the top takeaways and highest-graded players from the Steelers-Patriots game.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

PIT-NE grades: Trouble for Steelers’ O-line, defense

Here are the top takeaways and highest-graded players from the Patriots-Steelers game:

New England Patriots

–The Steelers are breaking in a new defense this season and the connection between QB Tom Brady (+4.6) and TE Rob Gronkowski (+4.4) ensured that it was a rough start to the post Dick LeBeau era. Miscommunications and coverage busts were paired with an at times uncoverable pitch-and-catch combination, with Brady kicking the season off by going 6-of-7 for 122 yards and a touchdown on intermediate targets.

–The last play we saw from Malcolm Butler was a Super Bowl-winning break on a slant route, but the Patriots’ now starting corner got 2015 off to a rough start (-6.2) Thursday night. Shadowing the ever-elusive Antonio Brown (+2.9), Butler surrendered 133 yards and a touchdown to the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, and was spared another 29-yard completion late in the fourth quarter by a Kelvin Beachum penalty.

–Patriots fans will be hoping that DT Dominique Easley’s (+0.9) season is not over after a mere eight snaps. In a brief performance, Easley looked to be carrying his strong preseason form into the regular season, disrupting runs up the middle, but an injury quickly saw an end to his game. In his absence, first-round pick Malcom Brown (-1.6) and rookie defensive end Geneo Grissom (-0.5) struggled to hold position against the run — let alone provide the disruption Easley offered in the open encounters.

Top performers:

QB Tom Brady (+4.6)

TE Rob Gronkowski (+4.4)

WR Julian Edelman (+3.5)

RT Sebastian Vollmer (+2.6)

S Devin McCourty (+2.0)

Pittsburgh Steelers

–It was ultimately a losing effort, but Ben Roethlisberger (+6.2) and Antonio Brown (+4.3) tried to match the duo of Brady and Gronkowski blow for blow last night. Roethlisberger made the most impressive throw of the night — a sideline pass to WR Markus Wheaton (-0.1) — but his interception in the fourth quarter combined with a litany of others from the Steelers ultimately cost them a chance at spoiling New England’s Super Bowl party.

–The Steelers’ AFC North rivals in Cleveland discovered last season just what a drop in play you can suffer when you losing your starting center, and Cody Wallace’s (-5.0) first start in place of Maurkice Pouncey suggested Pittsburgh are in for similar struggles. In the ground game he struggled with defensive linemen and linebackers alike, while in the passing game he surrendered four pressures (1 sack, 1 hit, 2 hurries) to four different New England defenders.

–While the Steelers didn’t have a single corner victimized in the same manner as the Pats’ Malcolm Butler was, as a unit they fared no better. While no Pittsburgh corner surrendered more than 50 yards, the trio of William Gay (-0.2), Antwon Blake (-2.6) and Cortez Allen (-4.2) all earned coverage grades of -0.9 or worse, with Blake and Allen also missing two tackles apiece.

Top performers:

QB Ben Roethlisberger (+6.2)

RB DeAngelo Williams (+4.6)

WR Antonio Brown (+4.3)

LG Ramon Foster (+4.0)

NT Steve McLendon (+2.0)

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Mcgarnicle79

    While I can see a why Butler would get a negative grade based the yards/tds he gave up in his coverage, watching the game I thought Butler played pretty good against arguably the best receiver in the game. Some of the plays Roethlisberger and Brown made against him seem unbeatable. Most times Butler seemed to be in good position with tight coverage and I would think that if he plays like that every week he’ll end up with more positive grades then negative.

    • Runner1967

      No he didn’t at all. Brown had 9 catches on ten targets v Butler. I don’t care that NBC tried to paint otherwise but Brown owned Butler.

      • qtwq

        Yea he did for Malcolm butler this isnt Revis. Malcolm butler is in his first year starting he gave up to 30 yard passes but for the most part he was in great position just got beat by a better receiver.

    • Joseph

      So if Revis was on him he would have the same stats? If not, then how is that unbeatable?

      • Izach

        Brown would have made Regis look bad too

    • Mark Jones

      I agree. I have no problem with Butler’s grade, but 3 catches and the TD came on the last drive with the Pats up 14, and in a defense to not give up a quick score. Yes, I’m sure the Pats preferred not to give up the TD with 2 secs left, but Brown’s coverage on that play was pretty good — just beaten by a great, accurate throw to a fast, dependable receiver.

  • Ike Evans

    Mclendon always shows up and gets no credit

  • Diguto

    How come Ben gets a better rating than Tom for this game. I really can´t get PFF evaluation on QBs. This might be the only weakness of this site. Always poor notes compared to other positions (even being the most important player on the field) and now that, 4TDS, game on hand is beaten by a good performance by Ben, but not quite dominant.

    • Salty Dog

      The ratings aren’t based on outcomes, they’re based on what that player did on each play and how well or poorly the performance was.

      Example #1: Brady’s first TD to Gronk probably didn’t get a particularly high grade. Any QB can throw a short pass to an uncovered Gronk for a TD. In that case, the offensive scheme and Gronk’s ability to run after the catch are mostly responsible for the TD outcome. All Brady did was see his best receiver uncovered and throw an easy pass to him.

      Example #2: Big Ben’s pass to Heyward-Bey. It didn’t end up being a TD, but it should have been if the receiver keeps his feet in bounds. The way PFF grades, Ben gets credit as if it was a completed TD.

      Example #3: Big Ben’s highlight-reel pass to Wheaton on the sideline. A throw like that probably gets a huge grade because it’s so tough. That’s really what PFF’s grades reward most – the spectacular play. That play’s going to get a much higher grade than Brady’s 1 yard TD pass to Chandler, which (even though it was a TD) was mostly a result of the pick scheme to get Chandler open and wasn’t a particularly difficult throw. Wheaton would get a lot of points as well, but Ben’s performance on that throw was pretty amazing.

      Example #4: Brady’s fourth quarter 52 yard pass to Gronk. It was a coverage bust and Gronk’s talent allowed him to get more yards after the catch. All Brady did was recognize the coverage bust and make an easy throw to a wide-open Gronk, who then rumbled down the field. He’d get positive credit for recognizing the coverage bust, but aside from that it wasn’t anything spectacular in terms of what Brady did on the play. It’s far less impressive – looking only at the QB’s performance – than example #3 above, which was fitting a long pass into a very tight window. The outcome was a 52 yard pass, but the reason was primarily Pittsburgh playing awful defense, not Tom Brady making a spectacular throw.

      Example #5: Brady’s 19 yard throw to Dion Lewis on the Pats’ fourth TD drive. The LB in coverage missed a tackle that would have resulted in a much shorter gain. Brady gets credit for his performance, which was to make a short and fairly easy throw. He doesn’t get credit for the LB missing the tackle and the resulting ~15 extra yards because that has nothing to do with what he did on the play. The LB gets negative points for failing to make the tackle. Brady doesn’t get a huge positive number because he had no control over the missed tackle.

      Example #6: Brady’s fourth TD pass. It’s a fade route to Gronk. Brady threw it well, but the reason that play succeeds is mostly because Gronk is almost impossible to defend on that play. Put differently – Brady can make that same throw and if it’s a league-average TE, it’s probably not a TD. Gronk gets the positive points because his ability is amazing. Brady doesn’t get huge credit for happening to have Gronk on his team.

      Example #7: Big Ben’s interception. Not going to earn him positive points, obviously, but it’s also one of the “least bad” INTs you’re going to see. His team was 2 TDs down with 7 minutes to go. If they don’t score quickly, NE will just melt the clock down and the Steelers will lose. It was a very long throw that was effectively the same result as a punt. It’s very different from, say, Brady throwing a pick-six on the next play because he didn’t see a LB dropping in coverage. Both would show up as an INT on the stat sheet, but the context of the plays means that Ben’s INT is far less negative.

      That’s why Brady’s score was good, but not as good as Ben’s. Brady’s numbers were better than Ben’s on the stat sheet, but were mostly driven by things other than his performance – specifically, Pittsburgh’s utter inability to cover Gronk and Gronk being Gronk. Conversely, Ben’s numbers were not as good as Brady’s on the stat sheet, but were mostly driven by his performance – finding open receivers, making tough throws into tight coverage – which is why he ends up with a better PFF grade.

      That’s why PFF is the very best source of player ratings. They give players credit for their execution on a given play, not on the outcome.

      • Izach

        While I agree with every point you just made, that is entirely why I feel PFF is best used as a tool not a be all end all. Brady is essentially getting discredited for being smart, or his coach being a good schemer, neither should happen. PFF misses how hard it is to make the right decision. Big Bens int is an obvious example, big bens INT pretty much sealed the game IMO, if Ben is smarter with ball, doesn’t take shot, steelers probably take another 2 min sure but could’ve got a score from that drive. And still have time to score again. With the INT not only is that a lost opportunity but lost time and loss of field position even if pays didn’t score that next drive. INTs matter even on hallmarks before half, there could have been a better decision which drastically affects not only the play but the mind set of players as well

        • Vitor

          Salty dog never said it was a good decision the INT by Ben, though

          • Izach

            Neither did i, i said it matters just as much he said he didn’t really matter because they were already down

          • Vitor

            No, he said – and I agree – that an interception in that situation should penalize a QB less than an interception caused only because of a bad read.

            When you are down in the scoreboard and with little time to reverse, you have to play agressive and take some shots that you wouldn’t/shouldn’t take if you were in the opposite situation. So an error (like an interception) is more excusable. It’s an error and it does matter, but not as much as when you are leading by a large amount

      • boyblue122

        Example #2 – Big Ben’s receiver was WIDE OPEN

        “Big Ben shouldnt get credit for a TD even if DHB stays in bounds , since that was all the work of his WR getting wide open and any QB can throw that TD”

        -PFF probably

      • Citizen Austinite

        Big Ben can part a mosquito’s eyebrows from 40 yards mid-waggle.

        Most excellent.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      he made more big time throws than brady, pretty simple stuff actually

      • Snoth

        Then thats sort of flaw in the grading system then right? Brady has been getting penalized by PFF for years because the pats offense is more situational and excel at short and intermediate throws(which PFF says arent that hard) and dont really excel at deep throws, but if they have amazing offenses doing this and their(by my knowledge) the only team that does this this well why doesnt he get a lot more credit besides it being looked at as”simple” and “Easy”?

        I love PFF but it seems like their system for grading QBs is based off difficulty and balls thrown to tight coverages.

        • smuggler

          I don’t think so. Brady missed on two deep passes that would have been touchdowns. One to Amendola in the first half. One to Edelman in the second half. League average QBs would have performed better in those pivotal plays than Brady.

          Besides, he still had a very good grade.

          • snoth cambin

            But that’s the problem I’ll give you the amendola pass that was overthrown which ended the drive but that pass to edelman was ill advised because gronk was wide open on that play…but the next play he hit dion Lewis for a 10 yard slant that went for 10 more to the goal line where brady hit gronk where only he could get it on his back foot in the back of the end zone. But his overthrow was more of a negative then that was a positive.

          • Scott West

            Except Brady didn’t miss on either of those. Amendola got knocked off his route and couldn’t quite catch up. Edelman drew a DPI. Brady was accurate and decisive all game.

          • smuggler

            He’s allowed to adjust his throw if Amendola is knocked off his route. There’s no rule against it. Fact is, Brady is a marginal deep passer. He makes his money on the shorter stuff. If you miss an open receiver and it ends a drive, expect to be docked by any evaluation system.

        • Adrian Edwards

          Of course it takes difficulty into account. If it didn’t it would be no more valuable than statistics like passer rating.

          • Izach

            Actually find passer rating more useful,

          • Adrian Edwards

            Passer rating rates outcomes. If you want to rate players based on outcomes then go ahead, but that’s not how anyone grades players.

          • Izach

            Passer rating is more useful its more easily combined with tradional stats to get a better picture, of play. I can’t take. 4.3 or a 6.7 grade and do much with it but I can take a 112.7 passer rating and look at attempt, and yards, completion% and notice patterns 4.3 and 4TDs or 6.7 and 1to1 tells me nothing. No desernable pattern rhyme or reason. So yes when I say passer rating is more “useful” it is, QB rankings/grades don’t tell me much of anything especially when they are only based on the QB.

          • Adrian Edwards

            It’s based on those other stats, so of course it’s “more easily combined.” That’s not a measure of usefulness.

          • Izach

            When they try to grade the QB by himself they get these little babies bias’ all around, and tend to reward QBs for good throws but bad decisions as well while also punishing smart decisions and simple throws.

          • Adrian Edwards

            Completion percentage rewards the passer the same for completing a 5 yard hitch to an uncovered receiver as a bomb to a double covered receiver. Completion percentage is the biggest component to passer rating by far, because 2/4 contributing stats are comp% and yards/attempt (which is hugely influenced by comp%). But in terms of correlation with winning, yards/attempt correlates better than comp% – meaning comp% is an overrated stat. If you find that stat more useful than grading the play itself, fine. But it isn’t a better indicator of performance.

          • Izach

            Also PFF doesn’t grade difficultly very accurately for a lot of positions. QB is one of the few where it shows

        • burjur

          In my honest opinion, the grading they give is a tool to look at performances. It certainly doesn’t take into account pre-snap adjustments and reads. The performance or difficulty of throws are simplified for Brady to quickly release the ball or put in the safest and surest destination. But Brady has been a big time passer before. He was top 3 in 2011 and 2012 and last year he was top 6, firmly in the upper echelon of quarterbacks. He is such a sharp decision maker (which probably adds to his grade but not to the extent as big time throws).

          • snoth cambin

            That’s been my whole problem with PFF when it comes to grading. Brady is probably the best and quickest decision maker in the league and wouldn’t throw a 40 yard bomb to a player in double coverage when he could throw it 20 yards and trust his reciever to get 10 more yards of YAC and be happy with that. I guess it’s just me thinking deep balls are overrated and very situational definitely for a patriots offense that has alot of short receivers and requires very little error on deep passes.

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          fair point, i can’t concur or argue with it

      • Izach

        Ben is a better passer, but Brady was smarter and a better “QB” in the game.

    • Izach

      Basically Tom is smart but Ben is a good thrower. Tom gets discredited in this grading system when he just facilitates the ball to WRs, and relies on their YAC. Also hitting wide open gronk for52yards isn’t has valuable a play In their grading system as hitting a covered WR with a perfect pass.

      • boyblue122

        Recognizing that the defense is still trying to figure out which players to cover, proceeding to quick hut the ball, and getting the ball to a wide open receiver is worthy of a negative grade?

        What kind of backwards grading system is this? lol

        • bobrulz

          Who said anything about a negative grade?

          Brady still had a +4.6, which is an excellent grade for PFF.

  • Runner1967

    Also are you trying to write Ben had a litany of INts? Poorly written article.

  • willyeye

    I don’t get it…not only on PFF grades, but also on stats in general, the Steelers QB had a better game than the Pats QB. And yet on PFF pass coverage grades, the Pats D has a much better grade than does the Steelers D. Why would it be graded as such? I thought the Pats secondary had a horrible game, even worse than that of the Steelers secondary.

    • Adrian Edwards

      No doubt the Steelers got graded severely for the completely blown coverages on Gronk.

    • Izach

      While I don’t know specifically, I’d say the steelers miscommunications hurt them a lot, gronk had 87 yards and a TD on 3 simple miscommunications, not sayin gronk wouldn’t have gotten those plays or something similar but he didn’t even cover him on those 3 plays. also believe missed tackles, and poor coverage in general attributes to over all grade, where as the Patriots and butler actually had good coverage brown is just a special WR his fought for ball and the TD in particular were both his toughness and elegance on display.

  • Stephen

    It would be great to get some examples from each game like the ones Salty Dog wrote up, who I believe is a PFF staff member, but I could be wrong.

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  • Peter Cahill

    Bench Cortez Allen and start Brandon Boykin.

    • [email protected]

      Or at least get Boykin on the field!!! He could be our best CB after all.

  • shake_n_bake

    Final drive saw Brown make 3 catches for 52 yards and a score. Rest of game was 81 yards on 6 catches. I’ll take that.

    • BarneyFranken

      Actually, Brown only had two catches on the final drive. The third one you are thinking about was the 29 yard catch called back for holding. Before the final drive Brown was 7-109 on 9 targets.

  • Scott West

    Roethlisberger had quite a few excellent throws, but he also had some pretty bad misses to open receivers. Brady was more consistently accurate.

    Butler had tight coverage most snaps; he had a handful of failures on the rest, such as missing a jam that made him late on a go route, and turning his hips on a hesitation move. Brown got away with a full extension push off in the end zone, else Butler was in position to pick that off. And Brown made a crazy athletic catch around Butler who had perfect coverage on a sideline out. These grades don’t reflect how well each player did their job, but more the quality of the outcome. That seems not nearly as useful for predicting how a player will do in the future, certainly not how coaches would evaluate players.

    Football Outsiders DYAR is more in line with what I saw from players this first week.

  • T Shin

    Can anyone explain to me why PIT’s D had two sacks recorded on but NE’s O doesn’t show any sacks taken on the game records? Should they not be mirrors images. Also, why are hurries off.

  • Richard

    I just graded Brady and Roethlisberger from this game and Big Ben came out on top in my system too (greatestqb.com). Ben made more big plays and difficult throws and actually led his team to more potential points. He lost 10 potential points because of the kicker and a receiver’s awareness in the end zone. Big Ben did have 1 bad decision but outside of that throw he didn’t have any bad decisions and was only at fault for not scoring on 2 of his teams drive failures. Brady on the other hand was responsible for 3 drive failures. That nullifies Ben’s interception. Both QB’s were good but Ben was more impressive and more productive, he just played on a team that made too many crucial mistakes.