The Pittsburgh Steelers have their backs against the wall today looking to right the ship following three consecutive losses to some questionable opponents, including the lowly Oakland Raiders a week ago, who secured just their third victory of the year against them.
In order to stave off a fourth straight loss, they will have to conquer an obstacle that has nearly always taken them down, that being the New England Patriots, and by kickoff time the Steelers will already know how important a win will be, since all the teams they’re directly competing against for a playoff spot will have played.
The only thing they can control, of course, is winning themselves, which can’t possibly hurt them no matter what anybody else does. It will merely be very helpful or completely necessary. So what will we be watching for against the Patriots?
We might as well start defensively, and with Rob Gronkowski. The Steelers figure to throw as many looks as possible in trying to defend the All-Pro tight end, who has dominated them over the years. A mixture of players and coverages that keep him on his toes will be their best hope of limiting his impact.
Of course it will never be enough to take one player away to defeat a Bill Belichick-coached team led by Tom Brady. Josh Gordon has been on the rise and actually leads the team in receiving yards. Running back James White isn’t far behind and leads with six receiving touchdowns.
I would imagine L.J. Fort will be called upon to defend White often. Will Morgan Burnett play? Who else is being swapped in or out in the secondary? Because it’s sounding as though Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton will be the other primary cornerbacks alongside Joe Haden, with Mike Hilton going to the bench.
The most important thing will be to try not to give away coverages too frequently. The Patriots have been able to pick the Steelers apart when Brady could use motion to draw out coverage assignments and find the winning matchups.
Offensively, what will the running game look like? How much will they really even try to establish one with Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley? Based on recent weeks, it’s unlikely that they put much effort into this task, but the running back screen should be an important element of their offense.
The Patriots will still try to take away Antonio Brown, but Belichick knows the element that JuJu Smith-Schuster brings to the table, something that he talked about during the week, so don’t expect the defense to leave him in straight single coverage too often either.
The Patriots have given up almost 750 yards and seven touchdowns to tight ends this season. I think Vance McDonald will be a key to moving the ball against this group if they place their focus on the wide receivers. Expect some chain-moving plays from the Vanimal.