For the first time since February, the New England Patriots are getting ready to play a meaningful game of football. Last year, New England lost a Week 15 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers and looked uncharacteristically bad for that point in the season. The Patriots changed their identity on the fly and ended up winning Super Bowl LIII behind a great defense, an elite offensive line, and Tom Brady’s classic magic. The Patriots are facing off against the last team to beat team, but can they topple their old foe in the season opener? Let’s take a look at how New England can stop Pittsburgh’s offense in the Patriots Week One preview.
New England Patriots Week One Preview: Stopping Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
Take Away Juju Smith-Schuster
The Steelers look quite a bit different since the last time these two teams met up. Antonio Brown is out of town and making all the wrong headlines in Oakland. Say what you will about his off-field antics, but his on-field presence had an immeasurable effect on their offense. With Brown gone, the Patriots should devote the majority of their defensive focus to taking away Juju Smith-Schuster. While he’s not on Brown’s level, Smith-Schuster is one of the better young receivers in the league and is at an age where he should only improve with experience. The rest of Pittsburgh’s wide receivers leave a lot to be desired, so New England can dramatically hinder Pittsburgh’s passing attack if they can take away Juju.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Patriots use Stephon Gilmore to take away Smith-Schuster. Gilmore is coming off the best season of his career and played like a true lockdown corner throughout 2018. He certainly has what it takes to stop Smith-Schuster, but the Patriots could try a different tactic in Week One.
Last year, New England had J.C. Jackson match up with Smith-Schuster while Gilmore covered Antonio Brown. The rookie was up for the task, holding Smith-Schuster to just four receptions for 40 yards on 10 targets. Jackson, combined with a safety over the top, should eliminate Smith-Schuster from making an impact. This would free up Gilmore to take away either Donte Moncrief or James Washington by himself. Just like that, the Patriots can take away two of the three biggest threats in Pittsburgh’s passing attack.
Take Away Vance McDonald
The Patriots cornerbacks should be able to take away the wide receivers, but somebody’s going to need to cover Vance McDonald. The obvious choice for the role is Patrick Chung, as New England’s longtime safety excels in this type of role. Chances are, the Patriots use Chung as the primary option to take away McDonald. However, New England always has a backup plan ready in case Plan A fails.
Chung suffered a broken arm in Super Bowl LIII and hasn’t played any meaningful snaps since the injury. While he should be at peak health for Week One, you never really know until you see him on the field. If Chung struggles in his season debut, Joejuan Williams could be in store for a big game. As previously discussed, New England’s second-round rookie is basically Brandon Browner all over again. Williams matches up well against bigger wide receivers and tight ends and can play safety if required. Williams looked good in the preseason and throughout camp and should be up for the task if Chung struggles.
Invite the Run
The Patriots have the pieces to slow Pittsburgh’s passing game, but it’s hard to completely stop a unit with this much talent. Even without Brown, Ben Roethlisberger is still a top quarterback and he’ll find a way to move the ball through the air. New England should focus on stopping the pass and trust their front to slow down the running game.
Passing is significantly more effective than running, and New England can indirectly slow Pittsburgh’s offense by baiting them into early-down running plays. New England did this last year to masterful results. With James Conner out, Jaylen Samuels ran wild for 142 yards on 19 carries. However, the Patriots stopped the run when they needed to, and putting all their resources in defending the pass limited the Steelers to just 17 points. While New England didn’t win, the defense was not the reason for the loss.
New England’s front seven is significantly better now than it was the last time these two teams met. Danny Shelton sat out 2018’s matchup, and New England’s rush defense was considerably better with him on the field. The former Cleveland Brown has looked great in the preseason and should provide a sizable upgrade from Malcom Brown. Additionally, Byron Cowart made a few splash plays in the preseason and could be a good rotational run-stuffer for New England.
New England’s linebackers could be the best in recent memory. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are both above-average starters, and the depth is ridiculous. Jamie Collins reportedly is playing like his 2014 self, Ja’Whaun Bentley looked like a future star last year, and Elandon Roberts might be the best fifth-string linebacker in football. With this much talent in the middle of the defense, New England should be able to limit the run game while playing in nickel and dime sets. If the Patriots can execute these aspects of the Week One preview, then they should start the year with a 1-0 record.
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