By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Based on comments made by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, you can expect the same old Steelers when the Patriots visit Pittsburgh on Sunday.
While the Steelers offense will likely be limited with quarterback Landry Jones filling in for Ben Roethlisberger, they still boast two of the NFL’s elite playmakers in wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. It’s clear that the Patriots will still need to limit those two if and when they have the football in their hands.
On offense, Brady expects to see the “same Steeler defense” as he has many times throughout his career. There will be pressure up front and a lot of different looks. But they also bring a lot of different blitz packages, which Brady knows, and that may be one reason why Brady is 6-2 with 22 touchdowns, only three interceptions, a 113.1 passer rating and 69.3 completion percentage in his career against the Steelers. Against a quarterback as smart as Brady who can get rid of the ball as quickly as he does, blitzing generally isn’t a good idea.
But even if the Steelers switch it up on Sunday and drop most of their defenders back into coverage, it’s possible that Brady will shred them anyway – if the Steelers’ defensive grades on Pro Football Focus are any indication. Let’s take a look at how the Patriots may approach the Steelers on both sides of the ball and the matchups they will look to eliminate and exploit …
ELIMINATE: Le’Veon Bell. The fourth-year back out of Michigan State has established himself as one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL, regardless of position. He was going to be a focal point for the Patriots defense even with Roethlisberger feeding him the ball, but with Landry Jones under center, Bell will be leaned upon even more to move the football – and the Patriots defense will have to sharpen their focus on stopping him.
Ultimately, the defense would have to turn in a transcendent performance to truly “eliminate” Bell from the game. But if the Patriots were to pick one player to take almost completely out, like they did against the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell in Week 5, Bell would be the guy.
Bell is a significant threat both on the ground and through the air, where he can often line up outside like a wide receiver. It’s likely that the Patriots bring a safety down low to key on him, perhaps even bring in an extra one, in those spots. It wouldn’t even be surprising if the Patriots got creative and utilized Malcolm Butler’s strong tackling to deploy him against Bell in certain situations.
Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins (if he plays) will be key to limiting Bell’s production when he touches the ball, as those two always are against the run game. Their tackling will certainly need to be better against Bell than it was against the Bills’ LeSean McCoy in Week 4.
EXPLOIT: The Steelers’ young defensive backs. Veterans William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden, as well as third-year corner Ross Cockrell, have been decent for the Steelers thus far, but they haven’t faced a challenge like the Patriots. And at some point, the Steelers are going to need to put their younger, less experienced defensive backs on the field – and Brady will probably pick on them all day.
Safety Jordan Dangerfield has a good coverage grade of 80.5, according to PFF, but the former undrafted free agent is due to be seriously tested and, perhaps, exposed. Rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis, meanwhile, have averaged a dismal coverage grade of 46.8. The Steelers are having trouble even finding a position for Davis, who did not play a single snap in Week 6 at Miami.
The Steelers secondary might even struggle in coverage if tasked with facing the likes of Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. But if Brady gets them into matchups against Rob Gronkowski or Martellus Bennett, forget about it.
ELIMINATE: Big plays by Steelers receivers. As much as the Patriots defense will want to key on limiting Le’Veon Bell on the ground, they also need to be mindful of the big-play potential for Steelers wideouts like Brown and dynamic second-year receiver Sammie Coates. As always, Belichick will try to scheme in such a way that the Steelers cannot beat the Patriots with huge chunk plays.
It’s likely that the Steelers offensive line gives Landry Jones a lot of time to let those plays develop. Starting linemen Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, and Christopher Hubbard have averaged a strong pass-blockign grade of 80.5, according to PFF. The only offensive lineman who may have trouble up front is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who may be tasked with blocking Patriots defensive end Chris Long.
The Patriots will probably still keep at least one safety way deep to track those big plays, in case the Steelers give Jones some chances to sling it to Brown or Coates down the field. Devin McCourty is probably their guy for that. It will be up to the Steelers to use those same receivers on dink & dunk plays to combat the lack of big plays, and it will come down to Jones’ ability to minimize or eliminate turnovers from his game. Like they often do, the Patriots may be able to live with a series of smaller plays by the Steelers as long as they don’t take the ball to the house on one snap.
EXPLOIT: Steelers linebackers in coverage. Expect a lot of similar-looking plays to last Sunday against the Bengals’ putrid coverage in their linebacking corps. The Steelers haven’t been much better in that department; linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams have averaged an abysmal 42.9 coverage grade from PFF and haven’t faced a dual threat at tight end near the caliber of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.
Shazier has missed the last three weeks as he recovers from a knee injury, but has a chance to suit up against the Patriots on Sunday. Even if he’s out there, he would most likely have trouble keeping up with whoever he has to cover and it wouldn’t be surprising if Brady tests him. James White could again play a big role in the Patriots’ passing attack on Sunday, considering the coverage issues the Steelers have had all over the field.
It’s still possible that the Steelers switch things up and dial back the blitzes, because they should know by now that Brady can get rid of the ball in less than two seconds and pick you apart if you leave guys wide open. But they’ve allowed the third-most passing yards per game (294) in the league, and it’s a safe bet that Brady will surpass that number.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.