FOXBORO - As we get closer and closer to kickoff between the Patriots and Steelers on Sunday night, it's fair to wonder how Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels are going to move the football through the air.
We've heard both Bill Belichick and Brady suggest that we should keep our expectations for the team's receivers in check early on this season since so many of them either missed huge chunks of time or saw limited practice snaps with Brady this summer.
You'd assume Julian Edelman will hit the ground running. You'd assume Phillip Dorsett is a steady No. 3 or 4 option. But when it comes to Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas (on the injury report with a hamstring issue), Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, it's hard to know what the Patriots are getting at wideout.
At tight end, Ryan Izzo is the only healthy player at Brady's disposal. While he had some success as a receiver in preseason, he's not a dynamic athlete who's likely to post huge numbers in his first regular-season action as a pro.
That leaves the running backs.
And that position may be what saves the Patriots passing attack as their receivers get their feet under them in 2019. McDaniels has plenty of pass-catching threats like James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris. Even Sony Michel -- the skill position player with the most drastic run-pass splits in football in 2018 -- has shown some receiver chops this summer. The versatility of the unit is part of the reason the Patriots have allocated more active-roster cap dollars to backs than any other team in football.
So, we should expect White to see somewhere in the range of double-digit targets in the opener? Maybe another five or six spread out to others at the position? Right?
Turns out Pittsburgh might be well-suited to stop them.
The Steelers drafted speedy linebacker Devin Bush at No. 10 overall in the spring. Reports out of Pittsburgh suggest he'll be used as a specialty sub-situation 'backer, which makes sense since he's probably one of the NFL's best athletes at the position already. Vince Williams looks like an option for them against heavier offensive personnel groupings, and free-agent acquisition Mark Barron -- the safety-turned-linebacker the Patriots saw in Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Rams -- is their every-down guy.
"I think a lot of teams have more hybrid-type roles than probably what they were when I first started, where there was a base defense and a sub defense," Brady said Wednesday. "Now I think we have a lot of those guys that can rush, that can cover. Guys like Mark Barron started in the secondary at Tampa, and now plays linebacker, played linebacker for the Rams last year. So, we have experience with those type of players.
"We have backs that catch a lot of passes, line up in a lot of different spots, tight ends that line up in a lot of different spots. So, it's more of a game of that now. There's more personnel groupings, guys are utilized formationing, and they're finding defenders to counteract the skill set of the offensive players too. You know, you have a tight end that's a great run blocker and a great pass catcher, well now they have people to cover that guy, but also play against the run too.
"That goes for linebackers, secondary types, but people are trying to use their best athletes out there and get as much skill and size as they can to create matchups, whatever they feel are the best to help their team win."
Barron is the definition of a hybrid given his background. As a key piece to what the Rams did defensively last season. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots completed just three passes to running backs on eight targets for a total of 20 yards. Turn the clock back a little further to when the Patriots went against the Steelers in December, before Mike Tomlin's defense got more athletic at the second level, and the Patriots picked up only 33 yards on 10 targets to White and Burkhead.
The Patriots could try to get the Steelers to go lighter at linebacker with Barron and Bush on the field -- deploying their 11-personnel grouping might work -- in order to run the football. That's what they did against LA's lighter front in the Super Bowl. But the Steelers have been stout against the run in the recent past as well. With a front that features big-bodied linemen Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt, they were sixth in the league in rush yards allowed per game in 2018 and ninth in the league in rush yards allowed per attempt.
The Patriots did, however, run it well against them late last season in their Week 15 loss. On 19 attempts, they picked up 96 yards (an average of 5.1 yards per attempt) -- 58 of which came after contact.
The answer then? It'll probably be for the Patriots to stick with what we think will be their bread and butter: the running game. When they are forced to throw, attacking Steven Nelson and former AAF safety Kameron Kelly probably won't be a bad idea.
Eventually, it'll make sense to pepper Patriots backs in the passing game. But this week, with Pittsburgh's speed at the second level, that might be tougher than most.
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