Patriots Look to Rebound in the Steel City
It’s been a hot minute since we’ve seen a New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers matchup, but that drought ends this weekend. The Black and Gold Brigades' first season without the noted leader of men Ben Roethlisberger got off to a good start last week. As a 10-point underdog, they upset the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals in overtime, but that came at a cost.
Star edge rusher T.J. Watt went down with a torn pectoral muscle, however, that will not knock him out for the season. Regardless, he is on the shelf, for the time being, putting a damper on the Steelers' home opener this weekend. Here is what I'm looking for with both teams this weekend.
Date: Sunday, September 18th
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Stadium: Heinz Field (It’ll never be Acisure Stadium)
TV Info: CBS (Ian Eagle and Charles Davis on the call)
Even without Watt, the Steelers still have a pretty good defense. Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith, and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the core guys for that unit in the time that the reigning DPOY is out. Give a shoutout to newly acquired Larry Ogunjobi as well. Heyward was the only Steeler outside of Watt to hit double-digit sacks, and Highsmith, a breakout candidate, is off to a red-hot start. His three sacks last weekend put him at 50 percent of his 2021 production. The good news for New England is they can focus him off the edge now with Watt out.
Moving on to Fitzpatrick, this is the first time the Patriots have seen him in a long time. Week 2 in 2019 to be in fact, his final game as a member of the Miami Dolphins. Since moving to the Steelers, he has become one of the best free safeties in the game. Don’t know if Bill Belichick will give him the Ed Reed treatment, but he is a game-wrecker on the back end who could flip things in an instant.
Another wrinkle into this Steelers defense comes from the sidelines in the form of old friend Brian Flores. Mike Tomlin picking him up was one of the best moves of the off-season period. Although the ‘sleeper agent’ role Flores could play is likely obsolete with the changes New England has made since he left, he absolutely has had and will continue to have major input in the game planning for Pittsburgh. Signs that would indicate that is a healthy dose of cover zero, to go along with the general Cover 2 zone look Pittsburgh runs. They have the horses to pull that off, especially with the offensive line struggles for New England. On the subject, very happy Flores got back on his feet somewhere, great coach and a better person.
The positives for the Steelers mainly lie on the defensive side of the ball. Outside of their backs and pass catchers, this group is a work in progress at best. There is a worthy argument that Pittsburgh has the single worst offensive line in the NFL. The grouping of Dan Moore, Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole, James Daniel, and Chukwuma Okorafor is certainly not what Steelers fans were accustomed to in the 2010s. With that said, they surprisingly held up well in pass protection against the Bengals, allowing just one sack. Run blocking for this group was a different story. Najee Harris only went for 23 yards on 10 touches on the ground. Simply unacceptable when you have a franchise back like him.
Onto the pass catchers, the go-to guy in Week 1 was none other than the pride of Merrimac, Massachusetts; Pat Freiermuth. Muth gave the Bengals some trouble, hauling in 5 of his 10 targets for a team-high 75 yards. That includes a 31-yard gainer on a modified flea flicker. Mike Gesicki was effectively shut down last weekend by the Patriots for just a one-yard reception, Freiermuth certainly should top that. On the outside, the guy to watch is emerging star Diontae Johnson, who should be seeing a lot of Jonathan Jones on Sunday. He has some noted drop issues but is as good as they come otherwise. Johnson is also coming off a 107 catch 1161-yard 8 touchdown campaign with the corpse of Big Ben last year.
As for new quarterback Mitch Trubisky, he had a few chunk plays but was pedestrian outside of that in his Steelers debut. He also made little effort working the middle of the field beyond the LOS against Cincinnati, something the New England Defense should keep track of early on Sunday.
New England Patriots
Despite the Jaylen Waddle touchdown on a 4th and long with under a minute left in the first half, the Patriots' defense played well in Week 1. Tyreek Hill did get eight grabs for just shy of 100 yards, but never broke off a major chunk play. And save for that Waddle score, the Dolphins scored just six points offensively. New England is still 0-1, but the defense did their job last week.
The one thing that Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo should hopefully try to do is integrate their two rookie corners, Marcus and Jack Jones, into the action a little more in their second games. Marcus only got tracked for four defensive snaps, while Jack got 11. Interestingly enough, he also drew Hill in relief of Jon Jones, which speaks to how this staff feels about him, he wouldn’t draw that assignment otherwise. Outside of that and the availability of Adrian Phillips, this secondary should be in solid shape.
Moving to the Patriots’ front seven, they also did their job in creating pressure, ranking sixth in outright pressures, and third in pressure per dropback in the league in Week 1. Leading the way were Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise with a combined eight pressures and two sacks. This should be another good matchup for this group, but they need to watch for Trubisky to make plays with his legs should the pocket collapse as well. That was an issue in the 2018 game against the Chicago Bears.
Even if there were some positives on offense in Week 1, the Patriots need to improve in several areas both in play calling and execution. Firstly, Matt Patricia needs to establish the run game and stick with it. On the opening two drives, the Patriots ran the ball seven times, averaging six yards per carry on the dot with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Ty Montgomery all at least getting one carry. After that, they combined for just 12 rush attempts for the rest of the game, aka three quarters and seven drives.
That number is unacceptable for multiple reasons, mainly that leading to the Patriots running a grand total of three play-action plays for the entire game, a league-low. That also allowed the Dolphins to effectively tee off on Mac Jones, sending him to the X-Ray room after the game. Harris and Stevenson specifically being that underutilized was malpractice by Patricia. Another case of malpractice was Kendrick Bourne’s usage, just two plays the entire game. I understand that he missed a meeting in the preseason, and the Patriots have been very consistent on that throughout the last 20 years. However, having that leak into the regular season can’t happen, New England is a better team when Bourne is on the field.
Assuming Patricia can call a better game this week, what can Jones do under center to give the Patriots a shot to win? One thing McCorkle can do is keep an eye on No. 34 Terrelle Edmonds. The strong safety has been a shaky pass defender for the bulk of his career, and Joe Burrow went after him a good deal last weekend. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if they have some plays lined up specifically to go after him either. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was also picked on a ton but did come home with an interception. Additionally, Jones should be prepared for some Tampa 2 looks, Steelers did a fair amount of damage to Cincinnati in that formation.
Points Spread: PIT +2.5 (-112) | NE -2.5 (-108)
Moneyline: PIT (+110) | NE (-130)
Over/Under: O 40.5 (-105) | U 40.5 (-115)
Pittsburgh is a dog for the second week in a row to begin the year, leaving many NFL fans puzzled. To their credit, the Steelers were 3-0 last season as a home underdog, but the Patriots have dominated the Steelers both straight up and ATS over the last decade. Since 2013, the Patriots are 5-1-1 ATS while playing the Steelers and 6-1 outright. For games in Pittsburgh that record becomes 2-1 both outright and ATS. The under is also 5-2 and has hit in every regular season matchup except for 2013. Coordinators and players have come and gone, but Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin were there for all seven of those games. Patriots and under would be the play here should this game pique your interest.
For all the grief Tomlin gets and should continue to get for not getting his guys to take lesser competition seriously, he absolutely gets them up for these Patriots’ matchups. With that said, Belichick has had his number and then some since he took over for Bill Cowher in 2007. Yes, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are gone now, which changes the dynamic, but the Steelers have more holes than the Patriots do at this juncture. This is a matchup of two great defenses and two shakey offenses, but the Steelers' makeshift offensive line and Mitch Trubisky only being able to do so much are the deciding factor here. Hard to say if having Watt would flip things, but having him wouldn’t hurt Pittsburgh.
Final Score: New England Patriots 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 13