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Sidetracked

Offense bids to regain its early success

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / November 1, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - A mere three weeks ago, the common belief was that the Patriots were relying too much on their offense to be successful, and that to win, New England had to score at least 30 points and hope its defense didn’t give up 31.

But since then, the Patriots offense hasn’t been the same high-scoring juggernaut. After totaling a season-low 371 yards in their come-from-behind win over Dallas in Week 6, the Patriots totaled just 213 in Pittsburgh Sunday.

They scored 20 points against the Cowboys and 17 against the Steelers - a sharp downturn from their 33-point average through Week 5. On Sunday, the Patriots also struggled on third down, converting just 3 of 10 chances, matching their season low set in a Week 3 loss to Buffalo.

Last November, the Patriots rolled up 453 yards of offense in a 39-26 win at Pittsburgh.

As Tom Brady noted yesterday, what happened last year against the Steelers had little bearing on what happened Sunday. The Steelers changed things up defensively, playing more man-to-man defense than they usually do against New England.

“That’s part of their scheme. They probably did it a little more than they’ve done in the past,’’ Brady said during his contractually obligated weekly appearance on WEEI. “But there weren’t many looks out there that we didn’t prepare for or that we didn’t think they could do. It just really came down to our execution. We didn’t do enough on third down to stay on the field. We squandered some opportunities there. And when you play on the road against good teams, you don’t have much margin for error.

“We certainly made too many errors that allowed them to really control the tempo of the game, to control exactly how they wanted to play us. We never could really play on our terms.’’

Pittsburgh flooded the field with defensive backs who played physical, close coverage. New England’s receivers generally excel against zone coverage, with Brady able to buy enough time to let them find the soft spots.

But the Patriots had a hard time getting separation in man coverage, leading in part to their offensive struggles.

“It wasn’t anything that I would say we hadn’t really seen before, but probably a little higher percentage [of man coverage] than what they’ve shown in other games. We worked on it,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We just have to do a better job in those situations - protecting, getting open, having plays that maybe could make everything happen a little bit quicker, a little bit cleaner.

“I don’t want to get into that everything was a self-inflicted wound. I think they played well, I think they did a lot of things well. We had some plays, [but] not as many as they did and that’s why the result was what it was.’’

New England ran just three plays in the first quarter, as the Steelers had an 11-play, 68-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession that lasted nearly six minutes. After the Patriots punted, the home team began another long drive that ended on the first play of the second quarter with a field goal.

For a team that had scored in the first quarter in each previous game this season, the dearth of opportunities was different.

It also forced the Patriots to change things up. While the score wasn’t out of hand early, their play calling became pass-heavy. New England finished with just 12 rushing attempts.

“We fell behind,’’ Belichick said. “We were in the shotgun a lot, we were throwing a lot. We didn’t have a lot of snaps in the game and many of the ones we had were situational - trying to score, trying to come back, throwing the ball. We weren’t really able to have as many snaps as we wanted when we were in control of the situation or had more control of the situation. They did a good job of putting us in that situation and we tried to work our way out of it but weren’t quite able to do it.’’

In recent years, the offense has led the Patriots to many wins. Now it has struggled in back-to-back games. Jets coach Rex Ryan told New York media he took notice of the game plan the Steelers used - tight man-to-man coverage, ball control, keeping Brady off the field - and it’s a safe bet other teams will too.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com.

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