The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are set to square off in Week 15 in the NFL season, and there has been a lot of talk about this game from the national media landscape. However, I wanted to get a closer look at the enemy, and was able to ask Pats Pulpit editor Bernd Buchmasser some questions about the upcoming game.
You know, getting a better feel of what’s happening on the other side of the fence. Check out his answers below, and be sure to check out Pats Pulpit for the best coverage of the game from the New England side of the ledger.
The Patriots have lost four games, with three games to go. What is the overall vibe of the fan base, considering this is adversity which hasn’t been felt in New England for some time?
The Patriots have been a Jekyll & Hyde-kind of team this season. They look near-unstoppable one week but then deliver a head-scratching performance the next. They play well at home but have issues on the road. They beat the Chiefs, Texans, Vikings and Bears, only to drop contests against the Jaguars, Lions, Titans, and — most recently — the Dolphins. Safe to say that consistency has been a major problem for New England, and probably the main concern for the team. It was a problem on both sides of the football early in the year, but now it appears as if the Patriots’ offense has hit its stride.
The defense, on the other hand, looked terrible at times versus Miami after two straight solid performances against Minnesota and the Jets. And when it comes to the Patriots’ fan base, I think this up-and-down on the defensive side of the ball is the most frustrating part at this point of the season. When looking at New England’s first 14 games, it is safe to say that it simply cannot be trusted to carry the team if need be. Neither because of talent nor because of scheme, but simply because the unit’s lack of consistency.
The Steelers’ offense is their strength, what will Bill Belichick and company do in trying to slow down Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown?
I don’t know, poison their food or something? Seriously, though, I think the Patriots will implement a similar plan they used against the Vikings’ Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs — another high-quality receiver duo like Smith-Schuster and Brown — two weeks ago: the team mostly used bracket coverages with a safety on top and the cornerbacks playing tight man-to-man off the line of scrimmage. It worked well as the two caught a combined 10 passes but for only 77 receiving yards, and one touchdown.
If the Patriots use this approach, we might see Stephon Gilmore on Smith-Schuster and either Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Brown. Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty will serve as the cover 2-like over-the-top safeties to take away the deep ball on each side of the field. Furthermore, the team might try to use its amoeba-front alignment with just one down-linemen and the other front seven defenders constantly moving to challenge the quarterback and offensive linemen. It worked very well against Minnesota, but the question is of course how a superior passer like Ben Roethlisberger fares against this strategy.
Name one offensive player, and one defensive player who has been performing well for the Patriots, but might not be getting attention from the national media?
The Patriots’ offense is full of stars: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, James White — you name it. However, the blockers up front have received little attention despite playing like a top-five unit in the NFL. While right guard Shaq Mason is the best of the bunch, I’m going with left tackle Trent Brown as the under-the-radar pick. Asked to replace long-time starter Nate Solder on Brady’s blindside, Brown has performed very well this season and is a big reason why New England’s line is as successful as it is in pass protection and run blocking.
Defensively, I’m going with the aforementioned J.C. Jackson. While other players on this side of the ball deserve recognition — thinks: Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Not, Jason McCourty — I’m going with the undrafted rookie, who climbed up the depth chart recently and is now the Patriots’ number three cornerback behind Stephon Gilmore and McCourty. Despite his lack of experience, he has performed well and made plenty of plays on the ball.
Is this the end for Tom Brady? Or do you feel Brady has plenty left in the tank?
If the last 18 years have taught me one thing than it is to never bet against Tom Brady. And it looks as if this year is no exception: since the return of Julian Edelman in week five, Brady has looked good and just recently produced his best game of the season: while the Patriots lost in Miami, the 41-year old played his best game of the year and was at times unstoppable while making (mostly) good decisions and spreading the football around well.
This was a problem earlier this year — Brady was too focused on specific targets which led to some errant throws — but it looks as if he is again feeling comfortable within the offense and with the weapons surrounding him. So I have to say that he still has plenty left in the tank, especially considering that his arm strength is looking as good as ever.
What is your prediction for the game Sunday, and how do you see it playing out?
I can’t bet against the Patriots considering their recent history against Pittsburgh and the two teams’ current development. That being said, I think it will be a close affair like last year’s. So I’m going 28-24 New England. [crowd starts to boo]