Following a dramatic victory against the Cincinnati Bengals to open the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for their home opener against a formidable foe in the New England Patriots. The team’s defensive end Cameron Heyward, who is the longest-tenured Steeler and the team’s locker room leader, commented on the team’s preparation for Week 2.
“When you play the Patriots, you gotta understand what you’re walking yourself into,” Heyward said on his Not Just Football podcast Wednesday when asked about the Patriots by his co-host. “They’re a disciplined team, they don’t beat themselves, and they’re going to out-scheme you, to say the least. They’ll try to find your weaknesses at every level and they’re very good in their special teams.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl champion with no losing seasons, is 3-8 against the Patriots. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick achieved his all-time great resume by out-scheming opposing teams at every level, exploiting their weaknesses, and taking away what they do best.
The matchup between the Steelers’ defense and the Patriots’ offense appears to favor the Steelers on paper. The Patriots are on the road and coming off a seven point performance against the Miami Dolphins. Meanwhile, the Steelers’ defense forced Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to have an arguably career-worst game. However, a one game sample size does not tell much, and the Steelers will be without T.J. Watt.
While the Patriots lost their Week 1 opener with a poor offensive performance, Heyward knows better than to underestimate them, and went on to delve into their personnel and coaching.
“They have one-two punch in [Rhamondre] Stevenson and [Damien] Harris, and they run tough and hard,” Heyward continued. “And then Mac Jones, he plays with great energy. On defense, they have a guy like Matt Judon, an old Baltimore player. He’s a guy you gotta four hands on at all times. Obviously Belichick’s gonna scheme you, have some kind of trick play on offense to get your team that pursues well a little bit tired. When it comes down to it, we gotta stop the run, put them in situations where they have to throw the ball, and then cover those receivers and make sure to get after them.”
The Steelers’ biggest struggle in 2021, and the one they did the most to address in the offseason, was run defense. Due to injuries, inexperience, and poor execution, the Steelers ranked dead last in rush yards allowed in 2021. As of Week 1, there appears to have been an improvement, which the team will need on Sunday. While they are sure to make adjustments, the Patriots’ rushing attack was largely held in check by Miami in Week 1, which presumably contributed to their struggles. Moreover, quarterback Mac Jones will be playing with back spasms.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ offense will have its work cut out for it. As Heyward mentioned, keeping linebacker Matthew Judon away from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be a tall task for the Steelers’ offensive line. As mentioned before, the Patriots are known to excel at taking away what opposing offenses do best. This may mean the Patriots will make an effort to limit top receiver Diontae Johnson’s role, as well as making every effort to limit the Steelers’ already shaky run game.
Belichick and the Patriots have ran their fair share of trick plays against the Steelers over the years, as Heyward seems to recall. A play that comes to mind is the flea flicker long touchdown to receiver Chris Hogan in the 2016 AFC Championship. The Steelers’ defense must be ready for anything, as it’s more likely than not that New England runs a trick play to neutralize the Steelers pass rush.
Many expect this game to be low-scoring, for good reason. Both teams are coached by defensive-minded coaches with young quarterbacks on the other side of the ball. The Steelers will have their work cut out for them, as they cannot depend on the opposing team’s mistakes to have success as they did in Week 1.