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Patriots vs Steelers: All eyes will be on New England’s interior offensive line tonight

New England’s offense faces a tough Pittsburgh defense without its starting center.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ offense will miss one of its cornerstone players when it squares off against the Pittsburgh Steelers later today: starting center David Andrews has been placed on season-ending injured reserve last weekend after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. Andrews’ absence puts career backup Ted Karras into the spotlight — the fourth-year man is expected to line up at center moving forward.

While Karras is an experienced player, he is naturally a downgrade from Andrews. That doesn’t mean he can’t hold his own, of course, but the Patriots still need to find a way to make him feel comfortable and get him into a rhythm early on — be it by having Tom Brady line up under center more often, calling a healthy mix of run and pass, or helping with double teams against Pittsburgh’s potent interior rushers.

Jeff Hartman, editor of our sister site Behind the Steel Curtain, also thinks that all eyes will be on the interior line when the Patriots hold the ball tonight: “The Steelers defense has to take a unique approach to this game, and it all starts on the interior of the line. The Steelers see this as a weakness of the Patriots’ front, and know stopping the run and putting pressure on Tom Brady from the interior will be critical to success.”

“Me writing this is one thing, executing it is another,” said Jeff when talking to Pats Pulpit about the upcoming matchup earlier this week. “The player who scares me the most in this game is James White. If the Steelers play Vince Williams a lot in Week 1, the Patriots could exploit his lack of speed by using White out of the backfield. You can have all the pressure you want, and if Brady dumps the ball off to White and he has someone like Williams one-on-one, it is game over.”

White is one of the best receiving backs in all of football, and a tough matchup for any linebacker. Of course, getting him involved will only be one part of New England’s offensive attack: the team also needs — as mentioned above — to establish a healthy mix of run and pass: one of the problems for the Patriots the last time they played the Steelers was their pass-heavy game plan that was thrown off by Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler using some different coverage concepts

Pittsburgh played some cover 2, cover 3, and also did not use as much spot dropping in its zone scheme as it did in the past. In order to come away victoriously later today, the Patriots will therefore need to be able to adapt better to the Steelers potentially using more man-to-man looks and a more aggressive coverage scheme. Luckily, the Patriots are well equipped to do just that when looking at their receiving options from Julian Edelman to Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas.

Going back to the opening point, however, the success of the passing game does start up front and with Karras as well as starting guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason finding success against a potent Steelers front seven — a group that has the ability to attack from various spots on the field through blitzes. However, as Jeff pointed out, the front-line defenders also “need to be disciplined in the gap assignments, but also need to take advantage of mistakes made.”

“In their last two meetings, Brady has made ill-advised throws which some would say turned the tide of the game,” said Jeff. “In 2017, it was a pass dropped by Sean Davis, and the Patriots ended up winning that contest. If Davis completes the interception, there is no Jesse James catch/non-catch. In 2018, Brady’s pass was intercepted by Joe Haden. If Haden doesn’t come down in bounds, or drops the ball, it likely equates to points for New England and the entire game shifts in the Patriots’ favor.”

“Have to take advantage when the moments present themselves,” Jeff concluded when talking about the matchup between New England’s offense and Pittsburgh’s defense. Likewise, the Patriots need to limit the mistakes he mentions as well: be it by eliminating bad plays or cutting down on penalties — the unit had eight penalties when the two teams met last December — Josh McDaniels’ unit needs to play a disciplined game in order to come away victoriously.