3 Key Matchups to watch as Patriots take on Steelers

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images) /

After a disappointing season-opening loss in Miami, the Patriots are back on the road for a week 2 matchup in Pittsburgh to face a Steelers team coming off of a wild win against the Bengals. For all that has been made of the changes to the Patriot offense, Pittsburgh has undergone some changes as well, as Ben Roethlisberger retired, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a Chief, and Mitch Trubisky is now under center. The defense is still the strong suit of this Steeler team, but they were dealt a huge loss, as reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt suffered a torn pectoral muscle, which will sideline him for at least 6 weeks. With all of that in mind, here are three key matchups to keep an eye on in week 2.

Patriots Offensive Line vs. Pittsburgh Front 7

Until proven otherwise, this may be a key matchup each week. A less than stellar performance in week 1 did little to ease the concern over the Patriots offensive line from training camp. Now comes a Pittsburgh defensive front, which handed Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow the worst game of his young career. The Patriots do receive a little break with Watt (sack, INT, 3 tackles for loss on Sunday), but this is still a defensive front that had 7 sacks, forced 4 interceptions and a fumble. One player in particular to look out for is linebacker Alex Highsmith, who recorded 3 sacks, all while rushing off the left side. Communication across the line will need to be better, especially as the Steelers showed blitzes from the slot and inside linebackers in Week 1.

Pass protection will be the biggest concern, but this is a Steeler defense that is also good against the run. The Patriots were held to no gain or a loss on 7 out of their 21 carries against the Dolphins (not including a kneel down before halftime), not a great percentage. Now comes a Steeler defense that held the Bengals to no gain or negative yards on 26% of their carries. The offensive line will need to do a much better job not allowing the negative plays to keep the Patriots out of 2nd and long or 3rd long situations.

Make Trubisky beat you with his arm

Despite being gifted 5 turnovers by the defense (1 of which was returned for a touchdown), Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers offense only scored 16 points. A big reason why was the inefficiency of Trubisky, as he was only 21/38 for 194 yards. His 55.3 completion percentage ranked 5th worst among Week 1 starting quarterbacks, and two of the ones below him (Trey Lance of the 49ers and Justin Fields of the Bears) played in a monsoon. The only other time the Patriots have faced Trubisky came when he was a member of the Bears in 2018 when they held him to 26/50 throwing the ball and picked him off twice in a 38-31 win.

The Steelers ground game also struggled on Sunday, as they ran the ball 22 times for just 75 yards. After gaining 1,200 yards on the ground during his rookie season, running back Najee Harris was held to just 23 yards and left with a toe injury, although he says he’ll be on the field for week 2. In fact, the leading rusher for the Steelers in week 1 was wide receiver Chase Claypool with 6 carries for 36 yards. Another reason the Patriots must force Trubisky to stay in the pocket and beat you with his arm is that he has proven to be a good runner. He shredded the Patriots in that 2018 matchup, rushing 6 times for 81 yards and a touchdown.

Take advantage of aggressive Pittsburgh defense

The seven sacks of Burrow in week 1 were not only due to the weak offensive line in Cincinnati. No, this Steeler defense is aggressive, loves to get after the quarterback, and will be coming up field at all times. The Patriots must make them pay for their aggressiveness with more quick throws and utilizing backs in the passing game. Outside of the 41-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne, Mac Jones and the offense were at their best when he was able to get the ball out quickly. We saw a 17-yard screen to Nelson Agholor, a 15-yard pass to tight end Jonnu Smith and even the lone touchdown of the game, a quick out to running back Ty Montgomery.

The Bengals had success against the Steelers in finding their backs in the passing game as Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for 10 receptions for 96 yards. With the retirement of James White and now Montgomery headed to IR, the Patriots will need either Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson to step up in the passing game. This could also be a spot for rookie Pierre Strong or J.J. Taylor to make an impact.

The Steelers are a formidable opponent and the prospect of starting the season 0-2 is suddenly a large possibility for the Patriots. These matchups will determine if they come back to Gillette 1-1 or 0-2 with the Ravens on tap.