The New England Patriots will begin their title defense this Sunday night as they host the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. It will be a special night, as the team will also be unveiling its record-tying sixth championship banner. This begins the Patriots’ quest to try and become back-to-back champions once again, as they were the last team to do it when they defending their 2003 title to cap the 2004 season.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 4-1 in “Banner Nights” with the lone loss, of course, coming back in 2017 when they fell to the Chiefs, 42-27. However, this one seems to be extra special with the Patriots and Steelers now tied with an NFL-best six Super Bowl titles as well as these two teams having the two best records in the league since 2009. For the Patriots to begin the season with a win, here are the keys to the game for Sunday night’s matchup:
Getting Ted Karras comfortable
The Patriots’ offensive line comes into Week 1 with some inexperience at left tackle and center: Isaiah Wynn is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and being asked to defend Tom Brady’s 42-year-old blind side; Ted Karras will be replacing David Andrews for the year. Although it’s nearly impossible to replace Andrews, especially with his abilities to make pre-snap reads and sure everyone is set, many believe Karras had a great camp and feel he is up for the challenge (especially in a contract year).
However, he only exceeded 60+ snaps in a game twice last season in his lone two starts. Getting him into it early with a healthy mix of run and pass and helping him with some double team blocks can help get Karras acclimated and confident going forward.
Taking advantage of the size at wide receiver
When and if N’Keal Harry is activated off injured reserve after Week 8, the Patriots will be the only team in the league with three receivers over 6’3, 225 lbs: Harry will join fellow big men Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas. With Rob Gronkowski retiring, it’s been no secret that the Patriots wanted to go big at receiver in 2019 and you should expect them to use that to their advantage, especially in the red zone.
With the Steelers being pretty undersized in the secondary, look for Tom Brady to expose the secondary, especially if they stick to Keith Butler’s man-to-man coverage, that did work well for them last year in Pittsburgh.
Eliminating JuJu Smith-Schuster from the game
With the Antonio Brown reality TV show now off to hot start in Oakland, JuJu Smith-Schuster can say goodbye to single coverage — this will be his first look at being a true number one wide receiver. With Donte Moncrief, James Washington and, of course, James Conner out of the backfield, taking Smith-Schuster out of the game can really make life tough for the Steelers offense and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Patriots secondary did a great job versus top receivers last season as they locked down several top wideouts in the game over the course of last year. As Stephon Gilmore said this week, “we’ll see” if Smith-Schuster is up and ready for the challenge in what comes with being a number one receiver in this league.
Putting the ball in Tom Brady’s hands
From the classic movie Dodgeball, “it’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for them”. But seriously, Banner Night, skill players all over the field, and the numbers speak for themselves:
Tom Brady has dominated the Steelers his entire career. Despite a tough loss last year in Pittsburgh and Keith Butler playing more man coverage than we’ve seen from Pittsburgh in the past, Tom Brady’s confidence against the Black and Gold should be through the roof and he seemingly always brings his A game when facing the Steelers. Expect more of the same on Sunday night.