Led by Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers are again expected to feature one of the NFL’s better offensive attacks — even though it will miss Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders this offseason before of course signing with the New England Patriots on Saturday. Those same Patriots will still have their hands full when it comes to stopping Pittsburgh’s offense when the two teams meet later today.
With Brown gone, the Patriots can of course shift their attention to the Steelers’ new number one wide receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster should become the top passing game target to take away, but last year’s coverage plan for him may not change. J.C. Jackson and a safety over the top (either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon) in man coverage might still be the way to go to slow Smith-Schuster and by extension the Steelers’ aerial game down.
After all, this plan proved to be a solid one against Smith-Schuster last year as the wideout was held to 4 catches on 10 targets for 40 yards. Furthermore, this approach should also help free up Stephon Gilmore to essentially erase whoever the Patriots don’t want in the game. That being said, using too many dime looks with the intention to stop the passing game first may not be the smartest way to tackle this contest.
Why? Because the Patriots may be better off prioritizing stopping the run first as Jeff Hartman, editor at our sister site Behind the Steel Curtain, pointed out: “In today’s NFL there is naturally going to be more passing than running, but if the Steelers can run the ball effectively they will have their options in both the passing game and running game,” said Jeff when talking to Pats Pulpit earlier this week about the upcoming matchup.
“James Conner will be critical to the team’s success in Week 1, and while Roethlisberger will sling the ball around to a multitude of targets, Conner’s production, and by proxy keeping the Patriots’ offense on the sideline, will be huge,” Jeff continued. “The Patriots’ defense is legit, and quite possibly a top tier unit in the NFL. Points will be at a premium, so the Steelers might come out conservative to try and get a feel for what they are trying to do.”
Last year, the Patriots were unable to stop the Steelers’ rushing attack and it gained 158 yards on 25 carries — a number that allowed the team to control the tempo of the contest from start to finish. If New England wants to avoid a repeat performance, the club needs to find a way to be stout in the running game. Using a 5-1-5 look with Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Michael Bennett as the primary interior linemen might be the way to go.
All three are terrific against the run, after all, with Shelton looking worlds better than he did last year (when he was a healthy scratch against Pittsburgh). Furthermore, the Patriots need to be ready for the Steelers’ play action plays — something Bill Belichick mentioned earlier this week when he said that they “do a lot to keep you off-balance with some misdirection plays and RPOs, things like that.”
New England’s defenders need to read their keys consistently to not get fooled by any misdirection runs or pass plays. After all, as Jeff pointed out, “Steelers fans know the shots downfield will be coming. It just depends on whether they connect on any or not.”