Phil Perry

Pats-Steelers storylines: Could Krafts follow Pittsburgh's coaching model?

Patriots decision-makers could have plenty on their minds Thursday night.

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PITTSBURGH -- One team is still in the playoff picture. One is not. But that doesn't mean that when the Steelers (7-5) take on the Patriots (2-10) there isn't something on the line for players on both sidelines.

For the Patriots, it's about pride. And future employment opportunities. Specifically for their offensive players.

Let's dig into the "why" of that particular topic, which is one of our Storylines to Watch on Thursday night.

Resiliency check for key offensive players

When the Patriots were shut out by the Chargers last weekend, the offensive execution was poor. Bailey Zappe missed open throws. Mike Onwenu, one of the team's best players on that side of the ball, had one of his worst games of the season. Receivers were guilty of not finishing plays. 

But there was bad body language by wideouts who lingered on the turf for an extra beat after incompletions. There were mental errors from Pharaoh Brown, who seemingly missed on multiple blocking assignments. Ezekiel Elliott was bulldozed in pass protection and then whiffed on a fourth-down blitz pickup that led to a sack.

Now, on a short week, it's fair for the Kraft family -- as well as any coaches who will be around for 2024 and beyond -- to be watching for things like effort and body language. Who wants to be a part of the solution next season on the offensive side?

It's a serious challenge. It's easy to see want-to on a weekly basis from defensive players like Christian Barmore, Jabrill Peppers, Jahlani Tavai and Jonathan Jones. This would be a good time for players across the offense -- those who want to be around beyond this year, at least -- to prove that they too can raise their level during a lost season. 

Patriots decision-makers will be watching. And even if the games don't mean much right now, opinions may be altered between now and the end of the season that could help shape the next iteration of the roster. 

Is Steelers' coaching model attractive to Krafts?

Mike Tomlin is one of the longest-tenured and most accomplished head coaches in the NFL at the moment. Since taking over in 2007, his team famously has never had a losing record, dropping to .500 just three times and making 10 postseason appearances in 16 opportunities.

With a defense-focused background, Tomlin has been described over the years as a film-devouring football junkie as well as an effective motivator and communicator with an ability to handle a variety of locker-room personalities. He's not a play-caller, instead opting for the more traditional true-head-coach approach as an overseer of all things football for his team.

As has been the case with the larger Steelers brand under the Rooney family -- they've had just three head coaches since 1969 -- one of Tomlin's defining traits has been his and his team's consistency.

On the face of it, you'd have to imagine that particular characteristic would be attractive for the Kraft family if they are thinking about moving on from Bill Belichick -- who of course helped the Patriots compete for championships more consistently than anyone else in league history by deploying a style seemingly very different from Tomlin's.

If there is change coming, is there any chance the Krafts believe they have their own Tomlin already in the organization?

Jerod Mayo has been described by players who've worked with him as an effective communicator, someone who empowers players to help steer the direction of weekly defensive plans, and a front-of-the-room personality who commands respect. He's been critical, players have indicated, in keeping Patriots defenders playing at a high level despite the team's poor record.

You don't necessarily need to be an offensive-minded play-calling guru in order to have success as a head coach in today's game. Tomlin, like Belichick, is evidence of that.

A true head coach with the ability to command a room and steer a group of individuals to a common goal despite inevitable adversity still has plenty of value. And if that's what the Krafts believe they have in Mayo, then keeping him around would make sense.

Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran discuss how the Patriots' inspired play on defense should give the organization reason for optimism if Jerod Mayo is the successor to Bill Belichick.

Another chance for Bailey Zappe

Zappe is in the middle of an audition of sorts. He won't be in consideration to be New England's starter next season. But can he make a case to be its backup?

Against the Chargers, Zappe showed flashes of effective pocket-movement skills and down-the-field accuracy. He scrambled for two first downs. He eluded Khalil Mack, turning a would-be sack into a five-yard gain. He hit Tyquan Thornton and DeVante Parker in the hands on deep shots that went incomplete. 

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But he still took five sacks -- a couple of which resulted from Zappe holding onto the ball for extended periods of time -- and made multiple panicky throws. If he's the No. 2 of the future, he'll need to show poise more consistently. But that'll be easier said than done against a Steelers defense that ranks among the best in football this season.

Pittsburgh is fifth in defensive DVOA in 2023 and seventh in quarterback rating allowed. (The Chargers rank 28th in defensive DVOA and 27th in quarterback rating allowed. And that's after shutting out Zappe and the Patriots in Week 13.) Pass-rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith will give Patriots tackles all they can handle, and if Zappe makes good decisions on a regular basis under that kind of pressure, maybe that helps make his case as a legitimate backup option in Foxboro in 2024. 

Opportunity to revisit Pickens vs. Thornton

Before the Patriots played the Steelers early last season, Belichick spoke to 98.5 The Sports Hub about then-rookie wideout George Pickens, taken by Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

"He was one of the best receivers in college football," Belichick said at the time. "He hurt his knee and missed most of the 2021 season. We haven't seen a lot of him, but we have to be careful there. He's a good player."

Though it hasn't always been pretty between Pickens and the Steelers over the last couple of years, he looks like the latest hit at receiver for a franchise that has a proven track record of drafting and developing good players at that position. The Georgia product has three games of over 100 yards receiving this season, and through 13 weeks he has Pro Football Focus' 36th best receiving grade.

The Patriots had an opportunity to take Pickens out of one of Belichick's preferred SEC programs in the second round of the 2022 draft. Instead they traded up to No. 50 overall that year and took Tyquan Thornton out of Baylor. Thornton was rail thin at 6-foot-2, 181 pounds, but he had the fastest 40-yard dash among receivers at that year's combine (4.28 seconds).

"You want to get faster," Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said later. "You better get fast guys. And I don't know how many guys are out there that are faster than Tyquan."

The pick, which multiple front-office sources told NBC Sports Boston looked like a reach on draft weekend, hasn't panned out. Thornton has 34 yards receiving on five catches in five games in his second season, which pales in comparison to Pickens' 748 yards on 44 grabs. For their careers, Pickens' 1,549 receiving-yardage total dwarfs Thornton's 281 yards.

Pickens does not have Thornton's speed. But what he lacks in straight-line burst he makes up for with eye-popping contested-catch skills. Tossed from one game and suspended in college, Pickens came into the league with questions about his maturity, and his knee injury didn't help his draft stock. He was what might commonly be referred to as a "boom or bust" type of prospect.

The same was true for Thornton for different reasons, though. His size made him an outlier. And now the Steelers look like the winners of that second round based on what they're getting from their young wideout compared to what the Patriots -- owners of the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL -- are getting from theirs.

A silver lining for Patriots' future?

Even though the Steelers are led by a consistently-successful head coach, they're seeing just how limiting it can be not to have a true face-of-the-franchise quarterback. Sound familiar?

Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game since 2017, the tail end of Ben Roethlisberger's prime. But the team's records have also been good enough to keep them out of the running for top-of-the-draft quarterbacking talents.

It is, to a degree, no-man's land.

Week 1 starter Kenny Pickett is now injured, but he ranks just 25th in the NFL in quarterback rating for 2023, and it's still unclear as to whether or not he should lead the team moving forward. His offensive coordinator to start the season, Matt Canada, has been fired. He's played behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. He's not the Steelers offense's only problem.

But even if he's not "The Guy," which avenues do the Steelers have to try to find a future star at that position?

The silver lining of this dreadful Patriots season is that they at least have a path to finding a high-end quarterback. There is no guarantee that either USC's Caleb Williams or UNC's Drake Maye will be impact players at the game's most important position. But they hold promise, and we've seen just how quickly things can turn around for a team if it finds the right young passer and surrounds him with talent. 

No team should want to be in the position the Patriots are in right now. But now that they're here, with a real shot at the No. 1 or 2 overall pick, at least there's some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a potential high-end quarterback.

The Steelers, meanwhile, could be stuck in no-man's land until further notice if they don't get their quarterback situation settled.

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