Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Steelers preview
Every year, the Patriots go through the same process of self-examination. They won’t know who they are until at least Columbus Day, maybe later. In 2017, they couldn’t figure out what they wanted to be on defense until they threw a blanket party for the Buccaneers in Week 5 and went on to win 11 of their final 12. Last season, it took weeks to hammer out the personnel and attack plan on offense. Then they glitched late and had to reboot a second time after a 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh. In that game, they got run over on defense for the third week in a row, committed 14 penalties and had no flow on offense. But they figured it out and another championship banner will be unveiled Sunday night. What will happen after the celebration? You came to the right place.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
In their final five games last season (including the playoffs), the Patriots ran for 273, 131, 155, 176, 154. They had more than 30 rushing attempts in every game. They may not be a “run-first” team but they want virtually every snap to have a whiff of unpredictability. Might run. Might throw. Any defense trying to match the Patriots personnel runs the risk of guessing wrong because they have developed multi-faceted skill position players. And they can run out of any personnel grouping. Because of the Steelers outstanding front – Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave – a lot of teams prefer to test them elsewhere. But behind that front are some fast but light linebackers New England should be able to blast over – 230-pound Mark Barron (exploited in the Super Bowl when he was a linebacker with the Rams) and 233-pound Vince Williams. Their first-round pick Devin Bush is just 5-11, 234-pounds. Look for a lot of James Develin with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead running behind the big fullback. ADVANTAGE: Patriots
WHEN THE STEELERS RUN
The Steelers are a pass-first franchise. At least they were last year. But their most productive game of the season on the ground came in Week 15 last year when they ran 25 times for 158 yards against the Patriots, averaging a season-high 6.3 yards per carry. They would rather put the game in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger than lead back James Conner or his backup Jaylen Samuels who had 142 yards last year. The difference for the Patriots against the run this year will be second-year inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley being available and a slimmed-down but still hard-to-move Danny Shelton up front. Shelton had a very good camp and preseason and the rest of the Patriots front-seven has a ton of versatility. The Steelers also have one of the league’s best and most experienced offensive lines. Even though the Patriots got carved up last December, I see them handling the Steelers ground attack based on the way they got hot in their final five games. ADVANTAGE: Patriots
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
With the Patriots presenting no tight end threat to attract attention, the Steelers will send a ton of bodies at the Patriots most dependable receiving weapon, Julian Edelman. The speed linebackers and corners like Joe Haden will buzz around Edelman to try and make Tom Brady choose other options. All of those are limited. Josh Gordon is a long way from being in good enough shape to be relied on for a full workload. Same with Demaryius Thomas. Phillip Dorsett is a bail-out option. Jakobi Meyers is an X-factor. The best bet for Brady will be dump-offs, screens and checkdowns to James White, Rex Burkhead and – perhaps – Sony Michel, who’s been expanding as a receiver this summer. The Steelers are going to get after Brady with their pass rush so the checkdowns will be vital. ADVANTAGE: Steelers
WHEN THE STEELERS PASS
JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to have a tough start to 2019. The Patriots will refuse to let Ben Roethlisberger pound it to his favorite target by running double-teams at him all night. Roethlisberger can choose to force it there – and that’s a possibility – or get it to slot man Ryan Switzer or outside receivers Donte Moncrief and James Washington. The Patriots have too many waves of cornerbacks to throw at the Steelers and the versatility of the New England front-seven (along with a new devotion to going on the attack) is going to leave Roethlisberger frustrated. ADVANTAGE: Patriots
Both Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Boswell are experienced kickers, Gostkowski being the more competent of the two. This will be the first game for rookie Jake Bailey as the Patriots new punter and holder. He’s got a booming leg but he’s got big cleats to fill from Ryan Allen. Steelers return man Ryan Switzer is experienced. So too is Julian Edelman. If the Patriots trot Gunner Olszewski out there, the experience factor drops significantly. ADVANTAGE: Draw
PATRIOTS - QUESTIONABLE: TE Matt LaCosse (ankle), S Obi Melifonwu (ankle) and WR Demaryius Thomas (hamstring).
STEELERS - DOUBTFUL: S Sean Davis (ankle).
Officiating is a big subplot to this game. Offensive holding is a point of emphasis for 2019. If the Patriots are looking to pound the ball, how flag-happy will referees be in monitoring the running game and turning formerly legal maneuvers into fouls? That’s a bigger issue to me in this game than anything having to do with pass interference. Clete Blakeman’s crew is running the show. The Patriots are 2-5 in regular-season games he’s been involved in since 2010.
The Patriots are favored by 5.5. The total is 49.
Patriots 16, Steelers 13