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Scouting the Enemy: 8 Patriots to watch vs. Steelers on Week 14 Thursday Night Football

The Patriots may be 2-10, but they still have players to watch out for on their roster.

New England Patriots wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (7) runs in for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The SteelersThursday Night Football matchup this week is against the New England Patriots. The Patriots sit at 2-10, making for a very winnable game on paper. However, last week showed that the Steelers can’t afford to overlook anyone in the NFL as they lost to the Arizona Cardinals, who entered the game with the same record the Patriots sit at entering this week.

Like the Cardinals game last week, the Patriots’ dismal record doesn’t exactly mean there isn’t talent on their roster. Here are eight players on the New England Patriots’ roster to keep your eye on heading into Week 14.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

James Conner last week. JuJu Smith-Schuster this week. This will be the second straight game that will serve as a homecoming for a former selection in the Steelers’ excellent 2017 draft class, of which TJ Watt remains the only member still on Pittsburgh’s roster.

Smith-Schuster left Pittsburgh following his injury-plagued 2021 season. He spent 2022 as one of the Chiefs’ top receivers, winning a Super Bowl ring in the process. In 2023, he joined his third NFL team, the Patriots, signing a three-year deal worth $33 million.

Smith-Schuster isn’t exactly the playmaking force he was during his first few years as a Steeler anymore. His game is now defined by his ability to be a tough possession receiver. However, he’s struggled to even do that in the New England offense, recording only 25 catches for 170 yards and a single touchdown in 10 games played this year, on track for the worst full season of his career.

Smith-Schuster is questionable to play on Thursday, and even if he is fully healthy for the game, he hasn’t proven to be an impact player in New England’s train-wreck of an offense this season. Still, he could make some plays in the middle of the field as a pass-catcher from the slot, something Pittsburgh has struggled defending so far this season.

At the very least, he’ll be a player to watch due to his history as a Steeler and the fact that he left Pittsburgh as one of the most polarizing Steelers of the past few seasons. Will fans boo him upon his return to the city that drafted him? Or will he receive a warmer welcome?

RB Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott listed as a player to watch... in 2023? And as a member of the Patriots? What alternate reality is this?

That would be this year’s low-scoring, injury-ridden hellscape of an NFL season. New England’s top running back Rhamondre Stevenson, arguably the best player on their entire offense, will be out for some time with an injury he suffered last week, leaving Patriots’ backup Ezekiel Elliott to shoulder most of his team’s carries in Week 14.

Like Smith-Schuster, Elliott is a few seasons removed from when he was a legitimate, game-breaking threat, but the former Dallas Cowboy has still performed solidly when called upon this year, with over 400 rushing yards, two touchdowns, and a 3.8 yards per carry average.

When Stevenson left with injury last week as the Patriots took on the Chargers, New England relied heavily on Elliott, who touched the ball 21 times for 92 total yards. With the Patriots’ passing offense as dismal as ever, he’ll likely see another large number of touches on Thursday. Don’t be surprised if Elliott puts together a solid game as the Patriots’ feature back — the consensus is that he’s washed up, but the veteran runner is less than a year removed from an 876-yard, 12-touchdown rushing season. He still has some fuel left in the tank.

TEs Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki

The Patriots will probably ride Elliott into the ground on Thursday, but if they have any success through the air, expect it to come from the tight end duo of Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki.

For one, both are solid NFL tight ends. Even though they haven’t had the greatest individual seasons, combined they’ve put up a very respectable stat line (53 catches, 495 yards, four touchdowns so far this year). It’s worth noting that Henry started off the year very strong with two straight 50+ yard, one touchdown games to start his season.

Henry and Gesicki have certainly proven that they are capable starters, and even though their numbers have been down recently, the Steelers’ defense will be a great opportunity for them to get back on track. Pittsburgh has been decimated by injury at inside linebacker this season, and as a result, they have struggled greatly covering the middle of the field. Last week, the Steelers allowed 11 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals’ tight end room. There’s a chance the Patriots’ group could put up similar numbers on Thursday.

OL Michael Onwenu

Michael Onwenu has made a name for himself as one of the better guards in the NFL, but this year he’s been forced to play some right tackle due to the Patriots’ injuries on the offensive line. He’s been solid all year up to last week, where the Chargers’ pass-rush combined for five total sacks en route to a shutout win over New England. Onwenu was primarily lined up against LA’s Khalil Mack, who had two sacks and five tackles on the day.

There will be no rest for the weary as Onwenu preps to take on another elite talent in the Steelers’ TJ Watt this week. Although he’s playing out of position, Onwenu has the talent to record a bounce-back performance against the Steelers on Thursday. But with a pass-rusher of Watt’s caliber on the other side of the ball, there’s a chance that last week repeats itself for the Patriots’ offensive line.

CBs J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, S Kyle Dugger, and the Patriots’ secondary

For an offense as bad as the Patriots’, a lot of this article was dedicated to discussing it. So let’s end on what has been a legitimate strength for them this year: secondary play.

To prove it, look no further than last week, where the New England pass defense held the Chargers’ high-octane passing offense out of the end zone all game. Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert was held to 212 passing yards while his top wideout Keenan Allen didn’t even break 60 receiving yards.

The Patriot secondary is led by the cornerback duo of J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, who have held down the fort well with top cornerback Christian Gonzalez out with injury. Neither are household names, but they’re a rock-solid starting cornerback lineup who have quietly shut down a number of passing attacks over the past few weeks. However, their production hasn’t been anything special this season, with only one interception between the two of them.

The same can’t be said of Patriots safety Kyle Dugger, who has been among the best in the league for the past few seasons. He’s a versatile defender with lots of production, with 74 total tackles, two interceptions, one sack, four passes defensed, and 5.5 stuffs this season. If someone is going to make a play on the Patriots’ defense on Thursday, it’ll probably be Dugger.

However, while the New England secondary gets the spotlight here, don’t sleep on the team’s defense as a whole. They’ve been excellent against the run this year, holding Chargers’ star running back Austin Ekeler to a mere 18 rushing yards last week. They’ve held opponents to 10 points or less in each of their past three games.

It’ll be tough sledding for Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers offense on Thursday Night Football this week.