The Pittsburgh Steelers were selected to play the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in Week 1 for a reason. Not only are they two of the best teams the AFC has to offer, but this game will draw some huge ratings for NBC.
Due to the magnitude of this game, we here at BTSC decided to join forces, as much as Steelers and Patriots fans can, and give both our readers an in-depth look at the upcoming matchup on Sunday Night Football.
A big thanks to Pats Pulpit editor Bernd Buchmasser for participating in this exercise, and if you want to see what is being said about the Steelers on the other side of the fence, be sure to check out Pats Pulpit.
In this exercise we take a look at what the Patriots’ defense will do when they are on defense...
Bernd Buchmasser: With Antonio Brown gone, the Patriots can shift their attention to the Steelers’ new number one wide receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster should become the number one target to take away, but I would not change last year’s coverage plan for him. Instead, I would still go with J.C. Jackson and a safety over the top (either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon) in man coverage. This proved to be a solid plan against Smith-Schuster last year — he was held to 4 catches on 10 targets for 40 yards — and should also help free up Stephon Gilmore to essentially erase whoever the Patriots don’t want in the game (yes, Gilmore, a first-team All-Pro last year, is that good).
That being said, I would not try to use too many dime looks with the intention to stop the passing game first. The Patriots did that last year and it cost them as the Steelers ran over them for 158 yards on 25 carries — a number that allowed the team to control the tempo. If New England wants to win on Sunday, the club needs to find a way to be stout against the running game. Using a 5-1-5 look with Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Michael Bennett as the primary interior linemen might be a way to approach this problem. All three are terrific against the run, 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.
On the flip side, here was my response to what the Steelers’ offense trying to attack the New England defense...
Jeff Hartman: Look for the Steelers to try and remain as balanced as possible. 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 pass game and run game. James Conner will be critical to the team’s success in Week 1, and while Ben 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.
This is the approach many used against Peyton Manning when he was with the Colts in his prime. He can’t score if he is standing on the sideline. Long, time-sustaining drives that result in points will be key for the black-and-gold.
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, but Steelers fans know the shots downfield will be coming. It just depends on whether they connect on any or not.
Be sure to see all of the installments of this series with Bernd Buchmasser leading up to the kickoff on Sunday Night Football in Week 1!