So, this is pretty much it. The game that we’ve been talking about for almost a year is just hours away from going down. The Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the New England Patriots today at Heinz Field, and they are hoping to have to go on the road just two more times this season—next week in Houston, and then for the Super Bowl.
So what will we be looking for? Well, some of us will obviously just be looking to be beaten, because, of course, it is impossible for the Steelers to beat the Patriots. They will always lose to New England no matter the circumstances as long as Tom Brady is there.
But for the rest of us who are actually interested in watching how the game unfolds, there are some things to look for.
Chief among them will be on the defensive side of the ball. We have heard about man coverage all year, and the subtext behind all of that was the ability to play man coverage against the Patriots. So if we’re going to see it, it’s going to be now—or in the playoffs. But probably now. Because there is a lot on the line.
How much they run could depend on whether or not Joe Haden plays, or failing that, how much they trust Cameron Sutton—which they’ll have to, if Haden doesn’t play.
Of course, the focal point will have to be Rob Gronkowski. As much as the Steelers were burned by the likes of Chris Hogan in the AFC Chmapionship game, they came down more to blown assignments than being beaten. Gronkowski is the man beater.
So who will be the man he has to beat? Likely, many. Sean Davis. T.J. Watt. A rotation at inside linebacker. Mike Hilton. The key will be to throw variety at him and mask coverages and prevent him from getting free releases. Just make things difficult.
All options have to be covered, however. The Patriots have a number of running backs that can beat you through the air, and when you’re not paying attention, on the ground as well.
But the best wide receiver, and the best running back, will be on the other side of the field. The Patriots will try to take away Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, both of whom have had minor injuries in recent weeks—a toe and a knee respectively—but that hasn’t slowed them down.
Will JuJu Smith-Schuster play, following a minor hamstring injury? He has already missed a game with a hamstring issue earlier this year. Especially with Vance McDonald out, his presence over the middle is important.
Put simply, execution has to be at the highest level of the season. Barring last week’s setback for the Patriots, they have had among the best defenses in the league on third down and in the red zone from week five until then.
Brady has to be thrown off of his rhythm, and that means pressure up the middle. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, and Javon Hargrave will be integral to slowing down a lethal Patriots offense.