The Pittsburgh Steelers are heavy home underdogs to the 5-1 New England Patriots, and despite Steelers Nation being dejected entering the Week 7 game, I was able to interview Rich Hill, Pats Pulpit editor, several question about the upcoming game.
Check out the interview below to see what the Pats might do with their several quality quarterbacks behind Tom Brady, Bill Belichick's weaknesses and how New England remains so consistent year after year.
The Patriots are as good as advertised, but one aspect of their game which has been the one thing missing from the Steelers in recent years -- consistency. What, or who, do you attribute this level of consistency to?
I think it starts with Bill Belichick and works its way down from there. Belichick wants the players to have the same mental approach week in and week out and he actually made a point of ignoring the return of QB Tom Brady. A common sentiment from the players in the locker room was general surprise at how the coaching staff approached the first four games of the season.
Belichick wanted the wide receivers to prepare for the games as if they were in a vacuum and it didn't matter who was starting at quarterback. When Brady returned from suspension, Belichick wouldn't even acknowledge it because he didn't want the team to get the impression that Brady would fix everything that went wrong the prior week against the Bills. He wanted the players to get better in addition to the return of Brady.
And then it doesn't hurt to have some continuity on the roster. The cornerstone pieces- Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, LT Nate Solder on offense, DE Rob Ninkovich, LB Dont'a Hightower, S Devin McCourty on defense- have been around a while and carry institutional knowledge and attitude. There's a line from Edelman to Wes Welker to Deion Branch to Troy Brown, just like there's a line from Hightower to Jerod Mayo to Tedy Bruschi. This allows the ethos to remain consistent.
New England comes to Heinz Field as huge road favorites (anywhere from 7 to 9-point favorites). Is there any aspect of this game which has Patriots fans sweating, even with Ben Roethlisberger out for the game?
I think the Patriots fans could be a little worried about the pass defense, which hasn't looked particularly strong outside of the week 3 game against the Texans and against the 5th string Browns quarterback. Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the AFC and Sammie Coates has been extremely productive. Players like Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green have been productive against the Patriots, so this will be a big test.
Look for Malcolm Butler to line up against Brown for a great rematch of last season's week 1 contest, while Eric Rowe could get the nod against Coates in Rowe's second game in a Patriots uniform.
Bill Belichick is a tremendous coach, the numbers don't lie, but if you were to point to an aspect of his style, or coaching in general, which isn't great, what would it be?
On the field, I think it's always eye-rolling when Belichick decides to play zone defenses against young quarterbacks. There's a rhyme and reason for it; the Patriots rarely lose and they don't have to reveal anything from their defensive bag of tricks, but these are games where the Patriots could be winning by two or three scores, but win by a touchdown because they avoid rushing the quarterback in favor of dropping back into soft coverage. You can bank on this on Sunday against Landry Jones.
Off the field, I wish there was more open and less guarded dialogue from the players, and that definitely stems from Belichick. I'm not saying that I want players to be mouthing off about their next opponent, but having TE Martellus Bennett on the team talking about the books that he reads or ED Chris Long sharing stories about how he met Brad Pitt's brother at a bar in Tanzania has been a breath of fresh air.
With Tom Brady back, and as good as he has always been, what are the odds the Patriots look to shop one of their talented back up quarterbacks?
I don't think the Patriots are going to make any mid-season trade because of how important a good back-up quarterback can be for a team's success (as the Steelers are very well aware). There's also a chance that something might happen over the rest of the season where Brady might fall of a cliff and Jimmy Garoppolo will be needed in the future.
But if Brady continues to play at such a high level, then I see Garoppolo getting shipped out this upcoming offseason. He's under contract through 2017 and the Patriots drafted QB Jacoby Brissett in the 3rd round this year to allow for a transition period from Garoppolo to Brissett as the back-up.
All the scuttlebutt is that Garoppolo is going to fetch a 1st round pick and a day two pick at a minimum, which is a pretty great return on investment. Maybe the Patriots can be lucky enough to get two first rounders.
I hate to ask this question, but what are your thoughts on this game Sunday, and how it will play out? If you feel so inclined to give us a score prediction, that would be awesome.
I think the Patriots will win, but that Landry Jones will be more productive than expected for reasons explained in question #3. The Patriots will have watched how the Dolphins ran wild over the Steelers defense and they'll have taken notes, to go along with the years of notes that Belichick and Brady have compiled on attacking the Pittsburgh secondary.
The Patriots offense has been very successful going through Gronkowski and Bennett, but I think New England is trying to get Edelman involved as he hasn't been 100% this year after having foot surgery. I also expect RB LeGarrette Blount to have his number called. A lot.
Maybe there's a garbage time score in either direction, but I see this as a single-digit Patriots game as they try to run out the clock in the 4th quarter.
The Patriots got a taste of someone the Steelers know all too well, Vontaze Burfict, in Week 6. What were the players saying then, and now that the league hasn't suspended him again?
The players were all saying that they knew the Bengals were going to be chippy. Anyone that watches the Bengals knows that, according to the Patriots players. I'm sure Blount is upset that Burfict was messing with his ankles, but the team has probably moved on with the inside comfort of knowing that the Bengals probably won't make the playoffs.