As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. What will make or break the Pittsburgh Steelers as they square off against the New England Patriots
X Factor: Inside Linebackers
I’m not going to be cute with this one. We’re talking steak and potatoes, not the sides. Fitzgerald Toussaint is not this week’s X Factor. Instead, it’s one of the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses – inside linebacker, following the loss of Ryan Shazier. No team exploits a weakness quite like the Patriots and plenty of that was on display versus the Baltimore Ravens.
You all know I’ve pounded the table for Vince Williams and he’s responded well. I think much of the fanbase are on that bandwagon. But Tyler Matakevich, Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort, and Sean Spence at the other spot? What’s James Farrior up to these days?
I kept it broad with “inside linebacker” because frankly, I’m not sure how the position is going to look. I think the team, and could, play a lot of dime to mitigate the problem. But when they’re on the field, Tom Brady is going to relentlessly attack. New England spreads the field horizontally in empty set as much as anyone in the league, challenging the whole group to cover sideline to sideline. Williams is a better athlete than given credit for but by no means is he a great one. Fort can scoot. The rest? It’s average – if I’m being kind.
It’s not even just about Rob Gronkowski. The running backs are almost like wide receivers. James White has caught more passes than he’s run the ball and Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead are more than capable.
This group must respond. It doesn’t have to be elite. I’m not asking for five tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pick. But they’re going to be tested on the edge in the run game. In space on swings and screens. And vertically down the seams. Belichick is going to try to make their life hell Sunday afternoon.
And oh yeah, tackle. Fundamentals have still alluded this group, not to mention the entire defense.
I’m not hopeless. Spence has more time under his belt back in the league and Moats another time at the position. A chance to review last week’s tape, figure out what went wrong, and course correct.
But it’s not going to be easy.
Beating New England never is.