By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots were facing a major challenge in their Week 7 matchup in Pittsburgh, with Ben Roethlisberger running the offense for the Steelers. But with Landry Jones filling in at quarterback as Roethlisberger recovers from a torn meniscus, they face far less of a challenge at that position – but they still have to slow down Pittsburgh’s elite weapons.
The Patriots defense has mostly played this season with two deep safeties to limit big passing plays down the field, and were likely to do the same to limit those kinds of throws from Roethlisberger. But with Jones under center, the likelihood is that the Steelers feed the ball to running back Le’Veon Bell for 20+ plays, both on the ground and through the air.
At the same time, the Patriots also have a tall task in covering Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, who remains arguably the most dynamic receiving threat in the NFL. He caught nine of 11 targets for 133 yards and a touchdown in the 2015 season opener against the Patriots, but the touchdown came with two seconds left in garbage time and Malcolm Butler covered him well for most of the game – even when Brown caught the ball.
There’s nothing you can do when you’re all over the guy and he’s still doing things like this:
It’s likely that the Patriots focus mostly on limiting Bell, who is as good as any running back in the league and perhaps the best at catching passes out of the backfield.
Jones is just 8-for-15 on deep balls (53.3 percent) in his career, according to Pro Football Reference, so it may actually behoove the Patriots to flood the short-to-intermediate areas of the field and key in on Bell while forcing him to go over-the-top. Jones won’t necessarily have to get rid of the ball quickly – the Steelers’ pass protection has been excellent in 2016, with an average pass-blocking grade of 80.5 for their offensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.
Of course, the Patriots defense has rarely played that way this season, so it will be interesting to see if they change things up going against a backup quarterback with two of the best playmakers in the league. Bill Belichick usually approaches young, inexperienced quarterbacks the same way he does with the defense most of the time: force him to complete a lot of passes and go down the field for long drives.
That approach could be dangerous against the Steelers, considering the elite playmakers they still have. If they can keep the ball out of the hands of Bell and Brown as much as possible, they will make life hard for Jones on Sunday. But of course, against those kinds of weapons, that’s easier said than done.
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.