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The game within the game: Analyzing the Patriots’ offense vs. the Steelers’ defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are about to square off come Sunday, and we break down the “game within the game” heading into the biggest matchup of the season.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

As you may know, typically leading up to a regular-season game, I’ll have the chance to ask someone from the opponent’s SB Nation website some questions regarding the upcoming game. You know, the usual players to watch and prediction questions, but this week is different.

As the Steelers prepare to play the Patriots on Sunday in Week 15, I felt it necessary to dig a little deeper to divine what the opponent might be thinking. I was able to pick the brain of my friend Rich Hill, editor of Pats Pulpit, to break down the Patriots possible thoughts on both offense and defense against the Black-and-gold.

This will be a two-part series where Rich will be the offensive or defensive coordinator of New England, and diagram what he thinks the Patriots will try and do, while I will be either Todd Haley or Keith Butler for Pittsburgh.

Today’s matchup is the much-anticipated showdown between the Patriots’ offense vs. the Steelers’ defense.

New England Offense (Rich)

If I’m New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, I’m hoping for a much better outing against Pittsburgh than I had against the Miami Dolphins. Going 0-for-11 on third down was inexcusable and was rooted in a mix of terrible execution by the players, along with poor play-calling.

The return of Rob Gronkowski to the lineup certainly changes the Patriots’ offensive make-up, and his presence creates a trickle-down effect for everyone else. Last week, without Gronkowski, the Dolphins were happy to double-cover both Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan on the sidelines, and give up yards underneath to the Patriots’ running backs or to tight end Dwayne Allen.

With Gronkowski in the lineup and running up the seam, Cooks and/or Hogan should have a favorable matchup on the outside, or else Gronkowski will be open in the middle. He’s the engine that opens up opportunities, and with the Steelers weaker at linebacker, there should be plenty of opportunities.

I would also do a better job establishing the run against the Steelers’ defense because there was no excuse for throwing the ball so much in the first half when it was still a one-score game- it simply allowed the Dolphins pass-rush to tee off on Tom Brady in the pocket. Instead, the Patriots need to do a better job using Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead up the middle of the field to set up more favorable second- and third-down scenarios.

The keys are to soften the Steelers pass rush, set up the play action, and buy more time from Brady to throw the ball down the field.

Pittsburgh Defense (Jeff)

Keith Butler will have his hands full when trying to slow down Tom Brady and company, but the Steelers actually possess players to get the job done. What’s truly sad for Steelers fans is that if Ryan Shazier were healthy and available, this defense could actually match up well with the Patriots' offense.

Many believe this defense has been built to stop New England, and why not? If you can beat the Patriots, you can probably slow down anyone in the AFC North. However, Shazier won't be back anytime soon, and that’s a problem.

Rob Gronkowski has possibly owned the Steelers even more than Tom Brady throughout his time in the NFL. And without an athletic inside linebacker, the team will have to throw safety Sean Davis or (Lord forbid), slot cornerback Mike Hilton (all 5-feet 9-inches of him) against the giant named Gronk. It seems like an insurmountable task, but if Butler has any chance of slowing down Brady enough to win, it’ll be with the front-5. If Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and any combination of two linebackers can put pressure on Brady without sending blitzes, the Steelers’ secondary has been able to slow down passing attacks all season. The health of Joe Haden, who is listed as questionable, will be paramount in this endeavor.

But that’s not the whole story. Butler has to worry about those pesky running backs who are extremely versatile. Look for him to always have the running backs accounted for with athletic players like Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt helping to prevent those screen passes, draws and zone running plays which have turned into splash plays against the Steelers’ defense since the midway point of the season.

If I’m Butler, I know stopping this offense simply isn't in the cards without Shazier. Slowing them down might even be a stretch, but the focus for this defense in Week 15 should just be to force some punts. Get some stops and force the Patriots to punt the ball back to the potent Steelers’ offense. If you can't force punts and you’re giving up time-consuming drives, then holding the Patriots to field goals is your best chance for winning.

How do you think this matchup will play out? Let us know in the comment section below, and be sure to check out Part Two of this feature on Sunday morning!

A big thanks to Rich for taking the time to help us with this feature. If you want to know about things on the other side of the fence, Pats Pulpit is your place to be.