In monitoring the discussion surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers’ next game against the Patriots, the vast majority of the focus seems to be on backup quarterback Landry Jones, who is obviously being thrust into the starting lineup due to injury. That is, of course, among those who have not already thrown their hands up in defeat and conceded the game.
Less focus has been placed on the fact that the defense needs to step up in a major way against this Patriots offense in order for the Steelers to claim a victory on their home grass. They have played up to the competition against New England’s offense in the not so distant past, keeping the score relatively low in a victory in 2010 while calling upon the services of a rookie defensive back to defend tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Steelers will have their pick of rookie defensive backs to field a defense on Sunday, although it is not clear if any of them will be put on New England’s talented pass-catching tight ends. First-round cornerback Artie Burns, of course, would not be tasked with that role, but second-round safety Sean Davis played a lot of snaps in the slot before he was seemingly demoted prior to the last game.
So the question remains how the Steelers defense intends to combat the Patriots’ two-headed monster at tight end, as Martellus Bennett is also a talented and productive threat. And the answer to that question will also hinge on the matter of health.
If inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is going to be able to play on Sunday after missing three games with a knee injury, then he is likely going to draw his fair share of assignments against Gronkowski and Bennett. He even suggested that he is looking forward to the opportunity to do that—provided that he is able to get on the field in a few days.
As I wrote about early today in my South Side question, Shazier has seen success covering talented pass-catching tight ends this season, but whether or not his knee is going to allow him to play at the requisite level, let alone whether or not he can play without reinjuring himself, is an open-ended question.
Over the course of the past three weeks, the coaching staff has been dabbling with new varieties of personnel packages in the back end. They have used a four-cornerback look, though often with only one safety.
Justin Gilbert has been that fourth cornerback—Al-Hajj Shabazz two weeks ago when Gilbert was out with an injury—and for the majority of those snaps, he lined up against the top receiving tight end. It would stand to reason that they might expand this package further this week.
Previously, they have only used this look for a handful of snaps per game, but against Gronkowski and Bennett, it might be required to use this look 15-20 snaps in the game. It would not be the first time they broke out or expanded a new defensive look for New England.