With the New England Patriots season opener right around the corner, we spoke with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain for an inside look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers are bringing to the table. In turn, we answered some of their questions on their site.
1. Patriots safety Devin McCourty called Steelers receiver Antonio Brown the best wide receiver in the entire league. Brown is so integral to the Steelers offense and he'll make sure he gets his targets. How have opposing defenses had success containing Brown, and if it happens, how capable are the other targets on offense?
The old saying "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him." rings true with Brown. Despite his smaller stature, he knows the rules set forth by the NFL in terms of what defenders can do to a receiver, and he exploits them to his advantage on every snap of the ball. Teams have tried everything to take Brown out of the game, yet he always gets at least 5 catches for a minimum of 50 yards for nearly 2 years now.
The Steelers use Brown in a multitude of ways. He can catch a bubble screen and turn it into a 10-yard gain, he can exploit the middle of the field and has the burst to make big plays down the field. He and Ben Roethlisberger are on a different level in terms of knowing where the other is when the play breaks down. Throw in the fact he is the game's best route runner and defensive coordinators surely lose sleep when thinking about what Brown can do to turn the tide in a game on any given snap.
Outside of Brown, the Steelers typically have Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell as their next best weapons. Obviously, they won't be in action Thursday, but don't sleep on players like Markus Wheaton, Heath Miller and even Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Steelers still possess great depth at WR, and will need it to defeat the Patriots on the road.
2, Steelers running back LeVeon Bell won't be available for the opener, and neither will starting center Maurkice Pouncey. These are two All Pros from 2014. How have their replacements looked in their stead?
There is no replacing those two players, who are arguably the best at their respective positions in the entire league. However, Cody Wallace is a quality replacement for Pouncey at center. He doesn't have the athleticism which Pouncey possesses, but is more than capable until Pouncey returns to the team around mid-season.
DeAngelo Williams was given the difficult task of taking over for Bell, and those are huge shoes to fill. Nonetheless, Williams has looked great in the preseason, albeit in limited action. The Steelers had Williams get to a weight he hasn't been since his days at Memphis, and it shows in his burst, speed and acceleration. Williams will be carrying the load of the Steelers running game until Bell returns, and it looks as though he is more than capable of doing so.
3. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the offensive engines that takes the team to another level. The Steelers seem to think linebacker Ryan Shazier and safety Mike Mitchell getting physical with Gronk is the key to their success. How do Pittsburgh typically handle and fare against opposing tight ends?
The Steelers have always struggled with athletic tight ends, especially down the middle of the field. The Steelers have been working on implementing more Cover-2 defensive looks this preseason, and have been gashed down the middle by athletic tight ends. I don't think the Steelers will play as much Cover-2 against the Patriots Thursday, for that specific reason, but safety play will be huge in slowing down Gronk and the boys. If they allow the [Tom Brady] to Gronk connection to get going, it could be a long night for the black and gold.
4. The Steelers have lost a lot of veteran leadership on that defense, with coordinator Dick LeBeau's departure, along with the likes of Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Brett Keisel. James Harrison is still plugging along. Who are the key defenders that the Patriots should know about?
Other than Harrison, who looks a lot like his 2010 self so far this preseason, some defenders to keep an eye on would be second year LB Ryan Shazier, DT Cam Heyward and FS Mike Mitchell. Those three players will be instrumental in the success, or failures, of the Steelers as a defense.
Shazier runs a 4.3 40-yard dash and will be expected to stay with Gronkowski on more than one occasion. Heyward, as you mentioned in your answers to our questions, will have to win his matchups to put pressure on Brady from the interior of the defense, forcing Brady to change his launch point and get him off his timing.
Lastly, Mike Mitchell was brought in after the 2013 season to help fill the void left by Ryan Clark, and played through injuries in 2014. He is healthy now, and Steelers fans are excited to see what this hard-hitting safety can do in his second year with the organization.
5. In a similar thread, Tom Brady's had some success against the Steelers defense, averaging a 70% completion rate on 40 attempts per game, with a 13:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Has new defensive coordinator Keith Butler revealed any changes to the defense? Or has his time as the Steelers linebacker coach since 2003 led to more of the same?
Butler reminds me of an old poker player not willing to do, or say, anything which might tip his hand. Butler, and his players, have been very tight lipped as to their plans on defending Brady and the Patriots, but I'm sure they are watching a lot of the film of the lone performance where Brady didn't annihilate the Steelers in 2011. The Steelers will certainly look to throw Brady off his timing, and force him into his second and third reads in hopes of the pass rush "getting home". The Steelers will have their hands full on Thursday night, and will need a near perfect defensive performance if they want to come back to Pittsburgh 1-0.