Why Sunday vs. Steelers is big game for Patriots defense

Ryan Hannable
September 05, 2019 - 8:58 am
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FOXBOROUGH — Ever since the Patriots stepped onto the field for the first day of training camp in late July there has been a great deal of hype surrounding the defense. (Myself included.)

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It’s carried over through the joint practices, preseason games and now into Week 1. The unit looks loaded across the board. 

Going against a team that relies on the run? The Patriots can ride their strong defensive line and rely on linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins to make a million tackles. Facing an offense that throws the ball a ton? The unit has the ability to get after the opposing quarterback and also deploys one of the best secondary’s in football led by Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.

It is also a very deep unit. Young players like Chase Winovich, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Joejuan Williams are almost after thoughts.

Sunday night against the Steelers is a big game for this group.

Last year, Pittsburgh averaged 403.3 yards per game, which were fourth in the entire NFL, and also averaged 26.8 point per game, good for sixth.

After Week 1, the Patriots have the Dolphins, Jets, Bills, Redskins Giants and Jets again on tap. Those teams aren’t exactly the offensive juggernauts of the NFL, which means what the Patriots do against Pittsburgh, a real NFL offense, will be brought up for weeks as the unit goes against those subpar teams.

There are a number of different faces on both teams, but the philosophies generally remain the same. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers are not afraid to take shots down the field and are one of the most explosive offenses in the league. In the Week 15 meeting in Pittsburgh last year — a 17-10 Steelers win — the Patriots allowed seven plays of 20 yards or more.

This certainly will be a main focus of the unit going into Sunday.

Pittsburgh is also going through a major transition on offense with Antonio Brown now in Oakland and third-year player JuJu Smith-Schuster now being the No. 1 wide out. While he had a monster year in 2018, that was with Brown getting the majority of the attention from opposing defenses. It remains to be seen how he will handle being the No. 1 receiver.

Bill Belichick is a master at taking away the opponents No. 1 threat, and it’s likely Smith-Schuster is that player this week. With James Washington and Donte Moncrief behind him on the depth chart, the ability is there for the Patriots secondary to really disrupt the Steelers passing game. Also with it being the first game of the season, they may be catching it at a good time as it figures life without Brown out.

The Patriots didn’t have to deal with running back James Conner last year as he missed the game with an injury, but he isn’t anything like Le’Veon Bell. Conner is a good player, but certainly does not demand the amount of attention the former Steelers running back received.

On the other side of the field, the Patriots are going through a transition period of their own. Rob Gronkowski has retired (thankfully for the Steelers, as the tight end dominated them) and the Patriots offense really hasn’t done much at the tight end spot to make up for his loss. Even at wide receiver there are a number of questions that need to be answered.

This could be a game, and perhaps season for that matter, where the Patriots defense needs to pick up the slack for the offense. 

After struggling to start the year each of the last few seasons, including allowing an average of 27.6 points per game in Week 1 the last three years, the Patriots defense will look to make a statement this Sunday night. 

If it doesn’t and has a poor showing, the issue is the offenses the team faces over the next six or so weeks aren’t exactly the greatest of measuring sticks. The Patriots should perform well against those teams, which means questions would likely still remain.

Over the last month there’s been a lot of talk about the Patriots defense, and now it’s time for the unit itself to do the talking.

Related: Tom Brady’s Patriots looking for a ‘fast start’ in September