The New England Patriots will kick off their 2019 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night and will reveal their sixth Super Bowl championship banner prior to kick off. This will be the third time that the Steelers will be in attendance to witness a “banner night” in New England.
The Patriots have never lost to Pittsburgh at home while Tom Brady is under center, but last year the Steelers were able to find success against the Patriots at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and beat them 17-10. To avoid losing to consecutive games to the Steelers, the Patriots will have to change up their game plan on both sides of the ball. In order to figure out what New England will need to do in their game on Sunday, we first need to understand how Pittsburgh was able to beat them last year.
Ben Roethlisberger threw the Steelers only two touchdowns in the game last year, and one of them was to Antonio Brown. Now that Brown is in Oakland (or at least was when this article was written), the Steelers’ number one receiver is Juju Smith-Schuster. Depending on how much he is targeted in this game, New England could throw a couple of different coverages at him. Belichick has been using a coverage scheme in recent years against the top receivers in the league to completely neutralize them in the passing game. He calls man coverage across the board but will keep a high safety shadowed over the number one receiver, ultimately putting him in double coverage. If this is the defense that Belichick calls, he will likely use Stephon Gilmore as the cornerback who will stick to Smith-Schuster and use Devin McCourty as the man to shadow him. They did utilize this against the Steelers last year, which gave way to James Washington being the Steelers’ top receiver in this game. He only caught three balls in the game but totaled 65 yards in those three receptions. I expect to see J.C. Jackson playing a lot of man coverage against Washington in this game. The Patriots have multiple corners who can play man coverage which will allow New England’s new-and-improved pass rush to get to Roethlisberger, who was only sacked twice in their previous meeting.
The Steelers also had a lot of success running the ball in last year’s matchup, even though their star running back, James Conner was not available in that game. Their backup running back, Jaylen Samuels carried the ball 19 times for 142 yards which allowed the Steelers to keep drives alive. They picked up 24 first downs and even though the time of possession was almost identical, the Steelers’ rushing attack made it difficult for the defense to get them off the field. Elandon Roberts, who was recently voted one of the team captains for New England, is arguably the best run-stopping linebacker for the Patriots, and he will likely get a lot of reps at middle linebacker to try to slow down Conner in this game.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Patriot’s main focus needs to be T.J. Watt. The offensive line needs to protect Tom Brady and T.J. Watt is quickly becoming one of the best edge-rushing linebackers in football. The Patriots did a good job of protecting Brady against the Steelers last year, but the offense still struggled to move the ball. This year’s receiving core for the Patriots is much more talented and should be able to get separation from the Steelers’ secondary. With Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas spread out wide, guys like Julian Edelman and James White will likely find themselves in favorable match-ups against the Steelers’ linebackers. The balance of weapons on New England’s offense should be able to find holes in the defense, regardless of what package the defense puts out there. If they add extra defensive backs to stick with Edelman and White in pass coverage, Sony Michel could find success on the ground. This all depends on the success of the offensive line. Ted Karras will be the starting center for New England and will be joined up front by Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Isaiah Wynn, and Marcus Cannon.
New England has had three consecutive days with perfect attendance at practice. Pittsburgh had two players on the injury report on Thursday who did not participate in practice in Mark Baron and Sean Davis. Both players are starters on the defense, and if they are unable to go on Sunday, Brady will seek out those match-ups.
Brady has an overall record of 11-3 against the Steelers, and as I previously mentioned, has never suffered a loss to them in Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have struggled to find a rhythm early on in the season in recent years, so this game could very easily go either way. Will Big Ben finally find a win in his house of horrors in New England? Or will the Patriots find early success to start their season? I predict New England to win this game by a score of 27-17.