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Perry: Five matchups that will decide Patriots-Steelers outcome

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Expect adjustments. That's the message that emanated from One Patriot Place this week as the Patriots prepared for their Week 2 matchup with Pittsburgh. 

They understood that, while their opening-drive success against the Dolphins last week was a source of some optimism, they didn't adjust well enough over the course of that game to put themselves in position to win. Personnel adjustments. Schematic adjustments. Pass-protection adjustments. Not only are they on the table. Some are best described as requiring urgent fixes.

How the Patriots handle those in this new offensive system, under a new coaching staff, bears watching. Particularly given that quarterback Mac Jones dealt with a stomach illness that forced him to leave the team's facility early on Thursday and miss that day's practice.

Next Pats Podcast: Tape provides answers for how the Patriots offense can get things FIXED | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

Jones had the ability to watch the offense from afar and keep tabs on that day's work from home via his team-issued tablet. But the expectation is that the Patriots will have to be prepared to see in Pittsburgh some of the all-out pressure looks they saw in Miami, and to miss the starting quarterback for one of the week's three practices is not insignificant.

 

How the Patriots plan to keep Jones upright has to be a priority after he suffered a back injury in the season-opener. But is it the matchup that will determine the outcome Sunday?

Let's dig into the five most important games within the game for this week.

The matchup that will win the first half

Patriots defensive backs tackling Steelers wideouts

"Usually," Steve Belichick said earlier this week, "the tackling in Week 1 is as low as it gets." The Patriots certainly had their issues in that regard down in South Florida. The play of the game defensively for New England was one in which they whiffed on Jaylen Waddle and watched him scamper for a 42-yard score before halftime. But there were other issues bringing down running back Chase Edmonds in the open field as well. Against Pittsburgh's wideouts, getting them to the ground has to be Objective No. 1.

That's due in part to the fact that Pittsburgh is going to try to maximize the run-after-catch (or straight ball-carrying) abilities of their receivers. Mitch Trubisky was lightning quick in Week 1, averaging less than 2.0 seconds per play, according to Pro Football Focus. His offensive line -- which does not feature a first or second-round pick nor a Pro Bowler or All-Pro -- isn't built to protect for extended periods of time. The deep portion of the field shouldn't be New England's greatest concern. It should be getting Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool down on the ground when they have the chance.

To that end, it'll be especially fascinating to see how the Patriots handle Claypool. He's their slot receiver, playing inside on over 50 snaps in Week 1, despite checking in at 6-foot-4 and over 220 pounds. The Bengals checked Claypool last week with 5-foot-8 slot corner Mike Hilton. Would the Patriots try a similar approach with Jonathan Jones? Would be hard to find two more different matchups for Jones through two weeks, after he chased Tyreek Hill around in the Miami heat. Hilton helped limit Claypool to four catches on five targets for 18 yards last week. Claypool also carried six times for 36 yards.

Belichick compared Claypool to Rob Gronkowski as open-even-when-they're-covered types of receivers. But Claypool said this week that he now has his "hazards on" after hearing those comments. He knows Belichick will have a plan for him. It has to start with sound tackling.

The matchup that will surprise you

Rhamondre Stevenson on Devin Bush

Kendrick Bourne wasn't the only player whose lack of touches surprised folks within the organization last week. (In case you missed it, I asked Bourne on Friday if he was expecting to be more involved on Sunday after playing just two snaps in Week 1, and he said he was.) Stevenson wasn't marooned on the bench in quite the same manner in Miami, but he played just 14 snaps. He had eight carries for 25 yards and caught both his targets for only two yards.

 

It would come as little surprise if the Patriots turned to their second-year back more as a runner this week, particularly with Jones getting over a back injury. But he also should be more involved in the passing game. My understanding is that with Ty Montgomery now on injured reserve, the Patriots won't hesitate to provide both Damien Harris and Stevenson with passing-game reps. But Stevenson is viewed as the more dynamic route-runner and the more versatile player. 

Combine his rare physical skill set (a big back with real receiving chops) with this matchup against a linebacker in Bush who has been a disappointment in coverage since entering the league as a first-rounder in 2019, and Stevenson should have a stat line that may qualify as a surprise for some after his relatively quiet day in the opener. 

The matchup that will bring you joy

Christian Barmore on Mason Cole

The Steelers finished last season as one of the worst offensive lines in football, and though they tried to mend what ailed them this offseason, they weren't able to do so with any significant talent upgrades. 

That includes Cole, who's now in his fifth season. In three of his four years as a pro in Arizona and Minnesota, per PFF, he graded as a firmly below-average pass-protector. He faces a difficult matchup this week in Barmore, who was among the most disruptive interior defensive linemen as a rookie last year. 

Barmore registered a quarterback hit in Miami last week -- his only pressure in the game -- but was feeling good by week's end this week, perhaps because he knows he'll have opportunities to flash what looked like game-changing ability all through this summer's training camp. Even if Trubisky is geared toward getting the football out quickly, generating immediate interior pressure with Barmore could lead to some back-breaking mistakes for the Steelers. Adding to the challenge for Cole is that he missed time in Week 1 with an ankle injury. He was limited through two days of practice but was listed as a full participant Friday.

The matchup that will take years off your life

Cam Heyward vs. Patriots interior offensive line

Bill Belichick didn't have to wait long in his review of Pittsburgh's season-opener to see just how disruptive Heyward remains at 33 years old. He abused the Bengals offensive line on the first snap of the game, which helped lead to a pick-six on the next play. "Heyward is one of the best in the league" at his position, Belichick said this week.

Patriots interior linemen fared well in Miami from a pass-protection perspective. But Cole Strange and David Andrews will be tested by the power that Heyward still brings to the table. Pittsburgh may also have some games schemed up on the interior to help manufacture some pressure as they adjust to life without TJ Watt (injured reserve, pectoral). Whether he's moving horizontally to create confusion or vertically to overpower his blocker, Heyward has the ability to cause problems. 

 

"He's kind of the bellcow over there," Andrews said Friday. "What a career he's had. He's been doing it for so long. Lot of respect for how he plays the game...

"He's done it for 12 years now. What else can he do in his career? He's a complete player. Plays the run well. Plays the pass well. Very powerful guy. He understands the game. He's long. He bats balls down. He understands that... He does it all."

The matchup that will decide the game

Patriots protection plan vs. Steelers blitz

"That's not going away," said one NFL offensive line coach. "It will never go away until they show they can stop it." The topic here, of course, was the all-out pressures that caused the Patriots issues in Miami last week. 

Jones told reporters this week that his back injury stemmed from the high-low shot he took as a result of one of those all-out blitz looks. How the Patriots handle what Pittsburgh -- whose coaching staff now features blitz-loving former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores -- throws their way in Week 2 will determine the outcome in this one. But what's perhaps even more important? It'll help determine the health of their quarterback headed into Week 3 and beyond.

"I think that there were some pass-protection issues that have to be solved immediately," longtime NFL quarterback JT O'Sullivan told The Next Pats Podcast this week. "And if you don't see those solved immediately, it's going to be really hard for Mac Jones to play quarterback at a high level. It's going to be really hard for Mac Jones to survive some of those hits that you're taking...

"It's one thing if the tackle misses a block or maybe blocks the wrong guy. That's going to happen. That's football. I think the thing that's concerning is on a third down, and you're in 10 personnel with four wide receivers, and your adjustment to zero (safety) pressure is to bring in a wide receiver to block, and he looks like he's confused and now your quarterback gets sawed off and just smacked in the face.

"Those types of things, to me, are like 'Whoa. We can't have that kind of adjustment... asking our receiver to do that. He looked confused. Our quarterback got hit. We got lucky that there was a penalty. But we can't live in that world.' That's more coordinator-y as opposed to the left tackle not blocking the right guy."

Curran: Week 2 vs. Steelers is close to a must-win game for Pats

Both were issues last week. Trent Brown -- who was listed on the injury report this week with a minor ankle issue -- missed assignments. But there were schematic problems, too. Nelson Agholor probably shouldn't be asked to block a blitzing linebacker as part of a protection plan, as he was when Jones was injured. 

 

What answers, then, will the Patriots have for those kinds of blitzes come Sunday?

The Steelers blitzed 15 times in Week 1 and may be prepared to send more this weekend given a) the Patriots issues with protection and b) Watt's absence which may require a more creative pass-rush plan. The Patriots could continue to max protect, calling potential receiving options in tight to the formation to block. But they could audible to a screen or some other type of quick-game passing concept. They could use tempo to combat any anticipated rushes, not allowing the Steelers to set up and disguise their blitzes the way the Dolphins did.

Whatever they choose to do, offensive line coach and offensive play-caller Matt Patricia will have to help his unit come up with something.

The expectation is that assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates will remain at the press-box level for the first half -- as he has done for preseason and Week 1 action -- before coming down to the bench area for the third quarter. "The benefits of it have been kind of what we were looking for," Belichick said of that setup this week. "So it's always an option to change things, but I think that the way that it's functioned has been good. So probably going to keep doing that."

But if the Patriots are concerned with their ability to adjust in-game, maybe a change on that front at some point is worthwhile. Yates' help on the sidelines early in games could help lighten the load on Patricia and allow him to spend more time with Jones, potentially smoothing out any real-time issues with more urgency and fewer steps in the communication process.

Nothing more urgent than keeping the quarterback upright and healthy. If they can't do that, they run the risk of losing a lot more than one game in September. 

Prediction: Patriots 17, Steelers 13