Bill Belichick’s game plan has become etched into football’s history. Truth is that while his game plan may be very complex in its application, its theory is a very simple one. Simply put, Belichick always works to eliminate what opposing offenses do best, forcing teams to rely on secondary pieces to win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no stranger to Belichick’s game plan as the two have crossed paths numerous times throughout the years and while Belichick has typically focused on eliminating one of Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown in years prior, he will not have to worry about either this season. Instead he will likely shift his attention to the Steelers’ new top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, meaning that Sunday’s game will likely hang in the balance of secondary options such as Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Ryan Switzer and perhaps even Diontae Johnson.
While it seems somewhat absurd to imagine that a game between AFC giants could come down to the play of secondary receivers, this has often been the case in previous matchups between the Patriots and Steelers.
Look no further than the 2016 AFC Championship game.
Bell left that game early with an injury, leaving Brown the focal point of Belichick’s defensive game plan. Ben Roethlisberger continuously dialled up the numbers of Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers but the opportunities literally slipped through their fingers on numerous occasions. To no surprise, the Steelers fell 36-17.
The Steelers victory over the Patriots last season and their controversial loss to the Patriots in 2017 are perfect examples of secondary receivers stepping up and pushing the black and gold team to the finish line.
Last December, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers finally slayed the dragon and it was neither Brown nor Smith-Schuster who led the team in receiving yards. The team’s leader in receiving yards that day was none other than Washington, who contributed his best performance of the season, catching three passes for 65 yards. Brown and Smith-Schuster combined for 89 yards and a touchdown but without Washington’s big-time performance, the end result could have been very different.
The result ended differently in 2017 but the story was setting up very similarly. Brown, who was setting the league on fire at the time was bracketed most of the time before leaving with a calf injury. Stephon Gilmore followed Martavis Bryant both before and after Brown’s departure and the former Steelers’ receiver was able to pitch in four catches, 59 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Rogers also caught a touchdown that day while Smith-Schuster recorded over 100 receiving yards and very nearly put the Steelers’ in victory’s graces before a disastrous finish.
When it is all said and done, the Steelers probably will not need Smith-Schuster to post career high numbers in order to win Sunday. What they will need though are the other contributors to step up when their number is called.
This could be a moment of glory or learning experience for the young receiving core. Smith-Schuster, Washington and Switzer have faced the Patriots before but never in Foxborough. Moncrief has only played the Patriots on the road once, finishing with just one target and zero receptions during the 2014 post season.
It may be déjà vu for Roethlisberger, as the situation mirrors the 2016 AFC Championship game when the likes of Coates, Hamilton and Rogers had never played in Foxborough before and that contest served as a rude awakening for his young receiving group.
Just like in 2016 though, Roethlisberger will make sure there are more than enough opportunities to go around. Now it’s just up to Moncrief, Washington and company to seize those opportunities. If they do so, the Steelers will have a fighting chance to accomplish a feat that has never been done during Roethlisberger’s tenure – that is go into New England and defeat Tom Brady.