The New England Patriots are facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this week so we spoke with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain to get an inside look.
1. QB Ben Roethlisberger's injury is the big storyline for the Steelers, but what are the strengths and weaknesses of QB Landry Jones?
Strengths? There are strengths? I'm kidding. If you ask any Steelers fan about Landry Jones it is usually followed by a wince and a quick shot of alcohol to try and erase the many images of Jones not performing when called upon. However, when given time to prepare, and healthy starters around him, Jones has proven to be capable of making plays.
His strengths are his accuracy with short-to-mid range throws. He doesn't have all the intangibles of Roethlisberger, but then again, who does? Jones is a smart quarterback, and will go as far as the rest of the offense, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, will allow him to go.
2. RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown are the best in the AFC at their respective positions; who are the other skill players of note on offense?
Sammie Coates is turning into a big-play threat in just his second year in the league, and slot receiver Eli Rogers (also a 2nd year WR) has proven his worth as a clutch possession receiver. Throw in a young tight end in Jesse James and the Steelers have a new found balance across their roster.
The issue then becomes how the Steelers spread the ball around to all of these players. That is the weekly task of Todd Haley, and this week Landry Jones. There are plenty of weapons at the Steelers' disposal on the offensive side of the ball.
3. Have teams been able to generate pressure against the Steelers passing game and, if so, what is the best strategy to disrupt the pocket?
The Steelers have a very good offensive line, but they have struggled at times, and it usually happens off the edge. Alejandro Villanueva (LT) has been overpowered at times this season, and the smart pass rushers can set up him with speed moves throughout the game. The Steelers have injuries at RT and could have Chris Hubbard, a 3rd string tackle, starting for the third consecutive game in Week 7. Hubbard typically requires help in pass rushing situations, but a defense can exploit the Steelers based on formation.
When the Steelers have an empty back set with no tight end help, it is putting the tackles on an island, something defenses can exploit. Otherwise, the Pittsburgh offensive line hasn't been bad this season.
4. How were Dolphins able to run the ball with so much success in week 6?
It is shocking to me how it took teams this long, but the Dolphins used a lot of 3 WR sets, which forced the Steelers to use their nickel defense, and then ran on the depleted front seven. On top of this simple task, the Dolphins zone blocking scheme is something the Steelers have struggled with in the past, and it bit them bad in Week 7 again.
The Patriots would be wise to deploy the same philosophy as the Dolphins, getting the Steelers into their nickel defense and running at a very light defense. It continued to work throughout 4 quarters in Miami; Belichick and company would be smart to use it again until the Steelers prove they can stop it.
5. How have the Steelers traditionally covered tight ends and have they been successful this year?
Traditionally the Steelers haven't covered tight ends well. Gronkowski has burned the Steelers in the past, and he isn't alone, but so far in 2016 the tight ends haven't really been the issue. The Steelers defense is a bend-don't-break unit which will give up yardage, but prides itself on not giving up the big play. Until the Miami game, they had surrendered just 4 plays over 30 yards. They surrendered nearly the same amount in the Week 6 contest in South Beach.
The Steelers drafted LB Ryan Shazier to help with the Rob Gronkowskis of the NFL, and hopefully he will be healthy enough to play, coming off a knee sprain. Otherwise, against Travis Kelce the Steelers actually had Justin Gilbert- yes, the former Brown- on Kelce in certain situations, and it seemed to work. Bennett and Gronk are a different beast though, and will be the biggest challenge for the Steelers on Sunday.