While the New England Patriots will catch a break facing the Pittsburgh Steelers without reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt on Sunday, they will still be in for a challenge.
Pittsburgh’s defense caused havoc all afternoon against Joe Burrow and the high-powered Bengals offense in Week 1. The unit forced five total turnovers, including four interceptions of the Cincinnati star quarterback.
“Obviously they had a big day defensively with the turnovers,” Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. “Their coverage was good. Most of it was zone coverage. They broke on the ball well, had a couple of very good athletic intercepting plays, got their hands on the ball and finished them.”
With Watt missing, Belichick doesn't expect many changes on Sunday against New England.
“Look, they’re a good defensive team,” he said. “They’re obviously better with Watt, but it is what it is. I can’t imagine they’re going to revamp their whole defense in one week. I don’t know why they would. They play a lot of people anyway. They played a lot of people in the Cincinnati game. They played over 100 plays on defense. So I think they’re probably pretty comfortable with what they have because they played those guys, and they played pretty well against, obviously, a good offense.
“So I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of dramatic changes, like go to a whole big new scheme or anything. I don’t think that’s really their style. But we’ll see. I don’t know.”
The Steelers will likely rely on defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who was a force up front as usual Week 1, moving forward. Heyward registered five quarterback pressures, often lining up over Cincinnati’s rookie left guard Cordell Volson.
Cam Heyward was a beast (as usual) for Pittsburgh WK1 w/ 5 total pressures. Spent a lot of time lined up over rookie left guard Cordell Volson. First defensive play of the day, wasted no time welcoming him to the league.— Brian Hines (@iambrianhines) September 14, 2022
Cole Strange will have his hands full on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/6hYHNfAofS
Belichick noted Heyward when mentioning Pittsburgh’s “complimentary defense.” After a first drive sack (above) from the veteran that put the Bengals in an obvious passing situation, Minkah Fitzpatrick hauled in a pick-six the very next play.
“Their secondary is kind of a ball-hawking secondary,” Belichick said. “They go after the ball and read the quarterback well. Do a good job of breaking on the throw and closing space quickly.”
The ball-hawking unit is led by Fitzpatrick. Besides the pick-six, he recorded 10 solo tackles and earned a 90.6 grade by PFF - the third highest from any safety in Week 1. Fitzpatrick’s athleticism allows him to be used all over the field, something the Patriots will have to account for on Sunday.
“There’s certain things that Fitzpatrick does that they want him to do that he’s good at, so they use him in some of those situations. Not saying other guys couldn’t do them, I don’t know, but they prefer him,” Belichick said. “He’s productive doing that so some of those roles I would anticipate he would continue to do those, he's productive at them. … I’m sure we’ll see him doing some of the fits things that are — I wouldn’t say they’re unique I’d just say they’re more prevalent with him.”
Despite Pittsburgh and New England having not squared off in three seasons, the Steelers will be plenty prepared. This offseason, they added former Patriot assistant Brian Flores to their staff as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. While he was the head coach in Miami, Flores’ Dolphin defenses gave New England’s offense plenty of fits.
The Patriots are already noticing the affect Flores has had on the Steelers defense.
“There’s some scheme things in there where certainly they brought some edge pressure from some secondary players, different linebacker pressures that they can bring,” Matt Patricia told reporters on Tuesday. “Certainly things we’ve seen before, some packages maybe that we recognized from previous games. So I think B-Flo is doing a great job of blending into that defensive unit. Obviously, Teryl Austin does a great job coordinating that, but I think there’s definitely some influence too...”