The Patriots square off against the Steelers in the NFL Regular Season Opener. The Patriots will be raising their championship banner and the stadium atmosphere will be electric. Brady chants will be erupting from the crowd as the team takes the field. At 8:30 pm it's no longer about what the team did last year but rather winning a championship this year. Here are some keys for the Patriots to defeat the Steelers to start the season.
1. Interior Offensive Line Must Ward Off Steelers DTs- We know that Tom Brady is not fast enough to escape from interior pressure and doesn't have much arm strength to compensate for back-foot throws. The Patriots tackles will be battling against ageless wonder James Harrison and rookie Bud Dupree. I'm not worried about those matchups because I believe Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will be fine on the edge plus Brady is good at eluding edge pressure anyway. So the importance is to keep the pocket clean around Brady's feet and allow him to step up and deliver. The one player we all have concerns about is Shaq Mason, who has been very inconsistent in pass blocking this preseason. The Steelers will likely put Cameron Heyward on Mason's side of the field and it's up to the Patriots OL to keep him from having a big game. Also, I would not be surprised if the Steelers try to load up the A-gaps with two rookie guards in the likely starting lineup. Communication as well as pass protection from the backs is going to be critical to slow down those pressures.
2. Feed the Ball to the Beast- Rob Gronkowski is the biggest difference maker on the offense after Tom Brady. The Steelers lack a player that can match up against Gronk and will likely double him all game. There will be times where the Steelers leave him in 1-on-1 situations or Gronk finds holes in the Steelers zone defense. Brady must make the Steelers pay for giving extra attention to Gronk by exploiting other matchups and make them pay for not paying extra attention to Gronk in certain situations. Gronk's presence on the field opens up the short passing game because of Gronk's ability to take the top off a defense. If Gronkowski is having a strong game, the rest of the Patriots pass catcher group should get a lot of opportunities to exploit the Steelers pass coverage.
3. Attack the A-Gaps- Like the Patriots, the Steelers are putting an untested backup in their interior offensive line. With Steelers starting center Maurkice Pouncey out with a fractured ankle, that means Cody Wallace is starting at center. Wallace has only played in a handful of games and not much experience at the position. That's an issue the Patriots should look to exploit. That includes some TE stunts, overloading the A-gaps with blitzers, and being able to disguise pressure schemes before the snap. The Patriots best interior rusher is 2nd year player Dominique Easley, who looks to be 100% back after tearing his ACL two years ago. The Steelers have to be wary of him because of his ability to bulldoze offensive linemen if he can't outright streak past them. Behind him is 3rd year linebacker and athletic super freak Jamie Collins, who is a nightmare to block in the A-gaps and the only Patriots player who can probably take down Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in one hit. It should be interesting to see what game plan Matt Patricia comes up with here.
4. Defend the Run With a Light Box- Le'Veon Bell was suspended after getting arrested for driving while under the influence of marijuana and current Patriots starting RB LeGarrette Blount also in the car, who is also suspended for this game. While the Steelers have DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer at RB, neither guy is a dangerous enough run threat to warrant the Patriots putting more than 7 defenders in the box. The Patriots will put more defenders in the box only to match Steelers run-heavy formations. If the Patriots can defend the run with a light box, that allows the safeties to focus on helping the cornerbacks in the passing game.
5. Minimize Antonio Brown and Heath Miller's Impact- Antonio Brown is going to get his catches. He's too good and there aren't many cornerbacks who can stay with him. However, there is a way for the Patriots to slow him down. Brown will likely draw double coverage between the cornerback lined up on the same side of the field as him and free safety Devin McCourty. There's no reason to play matchups against Brown, it doesn't work and the team is likely doubling him anyway. Another player to watch out in the passing game is Heath Miller. Miller doesn't put up a ton of counting stats, but has a very large impact on the Steelers offense. While Brown gets all the attention, Heath Miller is the outlet receiver who Roethlisberger turns to in crucial situations. Miller isn't going to threaten a defense down the seam or even rival Gronk's receiving skills, but he's a very savvy player and uses his body to box out defenders at the sticks. Patriots need to bump and hit Miller at the line of scrimmage all game with their edge rusher and same side linebacker. Make Big Ben go elsewhere on 3rd downs.
6. Crush Big Ben- On the last weekend, I talked about how the Patriots are stacked at the defensive end position. That has to come into play this weekend in how the Patriots attack the Steelers offensive line and try to get to Big Ben. Roethlisberger had a 112.2 QB rating when under pressure, so that means solo pressures might not get the job done. When the pass rushers get to Ben, he is very good at escaping would-be sacks because he's similar in size to the Patriots stud linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Wrapping up and bringing him to the ground is the key when attempting to sack Big Ben. At the same time, hitting Big Ben as he throws is equally as damaging as sacks because when the hits pile up even Big Ben will start to get wobbly with his accuracy. With the amount of talent and depth off the edge, the Patriots should be able to rotate their pass rushers in and out to keep them fresh for all four quarters. The Patriots must keep Roethlisberger from being able to establish a rhythm, make him hold onto the ball, and punish him for when he does.
7. Do Your Job, Well- The difference in game can often be traced to executing in critical situations. Whether it's on 3rd down, in the red zone, on the goal line, or on Special Teams, the Patriots need to win this situations. In addition to executing in critical situations, the Patriots must be able to win the turnover battle. Don't turn it over on offense and take the ball away on defense. Takeaways put the offense in prime field position unless the QB arm-punts and they're licking their chops to get a touchdown. In addition to taking the ball away, the Patriots must be able to score touchdowns off them. The Patriots usually do an excellent job at punishing their opponents for mistakes and in the worst way possible.
My final score prediction will be Patriots 45, Steelers 27. The Steelers will put up a good fight in this game, but ultimately I think the Patriots weapons are too much for the Steelers to stop. Roethlisberger will eventually wear out in the 4th quarter after taking too many hits and throw a pair of soul-crushing interceptions that allow for the Patriots to blow this one open late. Rob Gronkowski will have over 100 yards and 3 TDs and the Patriots will rush for less than 50 yards in the game. Tom Brady will throw for over 350 yards with 4 TD and 1 INT. Instead of running the ball, the Patriots will instead get the ball to their RBs in space and let them go to work.