Patriots

Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

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Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

FOXBORO -- Ryan Shazier’s frightening injury has created a big void in the Steelers' defense. He was the link between the front and back ends, and his speed, quickness and intelligence allowed him to stay on the field for three downs, giving Pittsburgh a necessary element of flexibility in a league where that’s key. 

In their first full game without Shazier, the Steelers had to lean on three different players to do the job of one, and the results were quite concerning for the AFC North leaders. They surrendered 38 points to the Baltimore Ravens, whose quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been one of the worst players at his position this year. 

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“This is a game of confidence,” said Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. “You have to go into this game knowing, ‘Hey, I belong in this position and this is what we’re going to do.’ And when you have a call sometimes and you’re going to be like ‘I know what they’re doing,’ you have to go for it.”

That clearly didn’t happen nearly enough for Pittsburgh in that one-point win. Perhaps it was the emotional letdown of knowing Shazier not only won’t be coming back this year but perhaps had his life altered by his spinal injury. You can’t dismiss that. This isn’t a player suffering an ankle, knee or shoulder injury. This is something far greater.

But it sure sounds like the message this week is to put that in the rearview mirror as best you can and -- stop me if you’ve heard this before -- do your job.

“It’s telling guys, ‘You don’t have to do more than what is asked of you,’” defensive end Cam Heyward told the gathered media earlier this week. “‘You don’t have to be Superman, we just need your best.’

“Our defense is designed for us to just do our 1/11th, guys have to understand that. Going against the best, they’ll exploit it. But if you come back at ’em and say, ‘I’m going to do my job because I trust my teammates and I expect the best out of everybody else,’ then you’re going to be successful no matter what.”

The Steelers gave up 413 yards to Baltimore, the second-highest total of year, and the 38 points allowed topped the charts. Sean Spence, Arthur Moats and L.J. Fort took turns trying to fill Shazier’s shoes, with Spence getting the most snaps. He was signed a little over a week ago, adding another layer to Pittsburgh’s challenge.

“It’s a lot harder because as guys go down and you have multiple guys stepping in, you have to be even more crisp,” said Heyward. “You have to have even more execution, and obviously we didn’t. But you have guys playing new positions, they have to understand, ‘We’re not just putting you in here just to put you in here. We’re expecting big results. We expect you to go out there and do it.’ "

Now the Steelers must face their toughest challenge yet, a Patriots offense that has scorched them year after year and will also get its best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, back from his one-game suspension for a late hit on Tre’Davious White in Buffalo.

“Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” said coach Mike Tomlin. “Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one.”

A presence the Pats may be able to exploit, considering Shazier did a fair amount of coverage work versus tight ends. 

“We need more. We need better,” said Tuitt. “And I think we have the players to do it.”

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#FridayBag: Don't worry, you can keep your hands to yourself

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#FridayBag: Don't worry, you can keep your hands to yourself

FOXBORO - Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

MG: Hopefully that’s not needed, Casey, but I will pass it on. 

MG: BIG GAME! Sure. Why the hell not?

MG: Allie, this is a question that’s I’ve been pondering for years, or at least months . . . ok, for about 3 minutes. Tarzan has either a) been duping us all this time and actually has a job, drives an BMW and has a colonial with 2 1/2 baths or b) he’s a baby face who never hit puberty. 

MG: Mikey! Here’s a quite from Todd Wash, Jags DC, when asked about Ramsey possibly covering Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski Sunday: “I think the last thing you can do is to go into a game like this and you try and reinvent the wheel . . . Jalen is a good corner and he plays against wide receivers . . . "

So either he’s telling the truth or he doesn’t want to reveal a wrinkle. My opinion: Why waste Ramsey outside the entire game? Brady’s at his best attacking inside the numbers and even more to the point, inside the hashes. At the very least, I’d deploy Ramsey on Gronk in the red area and make Tommy boy look elsewhere.

MG: Yeah, tough injury. Jon Jones has been terrific on special teams for two years, a likely heir apparent to Matt Slater as that guy who ends up being in the Pro Bowl every year. Love almost every bit of what he brings. Would say Jonathan Bademosi will be active this week and move into that role. 

MG: Sizzle, for sure. We’ve done a lot of X’s and O’s on this one and one area where the Jags have been especially vulnerable is under the linebackers. That means running backs, that means shorter crossing patterns and that means combo platters designed to force these LBs to make a decision. Telvin Smith was targeted 13 times last weekend (according to Pro Football Focus) and surrendered 12 catches. A healthy Brady feasts on this.

MG: Goose making his #FridayBag debut. Welcome. Best matchup is Matt Patricia and his big brains versus Blake Bortles. If that kid thinks he’s going to be looking at the same thing very often, I got a bridge to sell him. Worst matchup is T.J. Yeldon on the linebackers. We’ve spent a ton of time talking about Leonard Fournette and what he brings if he’s healthy but Yeldon is both strong, shifty and can catch. With a skittish QB, Yeldon could be heavily involved.



PP: JP, checking in from the District! I'd say the chances are minimal. I would do it. You might do it. Go out on top and all that. But you and I haven't been saying for years that we're planing to work into our mid-40s. And we don't have post-retirement business plans that kind of hinge on our ability to work into our mid-40s. We also aren't about to be named MVP...of anything. We'll see, but I would be very surprised if this ends up being Brady's last season.



PP: Good question, Michael. Also a scary one for Patriots fans, I'd think. If the unexpected happens and Brady can't take the field, I think you'd have some packages in place for Chris Hogan or Jacob Hollister just in case something happened to Brian Hoyer. Hogan is arguably one of the most versatile athletes on the team, and he threw a pass (left-handed) at MetLife last year. Hollister was a walk-on quarterback at the University of Nevada. When he transferred to Arizona Western Community College, he made the transition to tight end.



PP: To me, all of these questions are related, so let's smash them all together. I do believe the Patriots will show plenty of "21" and "12" personnel in this game. That means either a) two receivers, two backs and one tight end, or b) two receivers, one back and two tight ends. In that scenario, the receivers would be -- in my opinion -- some combination of Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola. I'd use the Cooks-Amendola combination most frequently unless it seems like Hogan has completely shaken the rust from his long regular-season absence. The reason it would be a good idea to use theses heavier formations -- as opposed to "11" personnel with three wideouts -- is that it attacks the Jaguars with their weaker coverage people on the field. If the Patriots deploy, say, James Develin, Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski in the same look, Jacksonville would likely have to respond by putting run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny on the field. If the Patriots can manipulate the coverage to get any non-Develin weapon on Posluszny, that's a mismatch they can exploit. We go into further detail on how the Patriots can exploit the Jaguars' base defense -- which has struggled in coverage this season -- here

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