The Patriots head into Pittsburgh off a tough 20-7 opening loss against Miami against a Steelers team coming off a big win. What challenges lie ahead for game two?
Expectations weren’t high for the Steelers heading into the year, and Patriots fans could safely pencil this game in as a winnable one. However, after the Steelers put on a defensive clinic, along with finding offense at just the right times, they beat the defending AFC champions in a 23-20 overtime thriller against the Bengals. Here, I take a look at the biggest things to watch out for with the Steelers in week two.
Can The Patriots Stop Minkah Fitzpatrick?
He’s a safety, technically, but his impact on the team goes well beyond his position. He is adept in the secondary, with a strong ability to anticipate passes and read plays, and this has turned into a career with 14 interceptions, 37 pass deflections, and even four defensive touchdown. Furthermore, he’s a great tackler, and rarely allows players to get past him, and with both speed and excellent and explosive hitting ability, him having 124 tackles last year should not be a surprise.
Even more fearsome for Patriots fans is the midseason form that Fitzpatrick appears to be in already. He had an unreal first game against Cincinnati, and was arguably the main reason the team won. His great tackling continued with a whopping ten solo tackles on Sunday, including some seriously huge hits. Furthermore, he had an interception which he returned for a touchdown, and even blocked Evan McPherson’s attempt at a game-winning extra point.
If there was a way for him to disrupt, Fitzpatrick found it and took it. This is definitely a tough player to deal with in a Patriots offense that is still finding its way.
Can The Patriots Coaching Staff Outmaneuver Familiar Foe Brian Flores?
The showdown between the Patriots and Brian Flores is nothing new. Flores, who was a defensive assistant under Belichick, has faced off against the Patriots numerous times in the past few years as Dolphins head coach. Last year, he managed to win both games against New England, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the upcoming matchup.
Flores has an acute defensive and schematic mind, and was a big part of multiple excellent defenses for the Patriots, including three championship teams. As the Dolphins head coach, he was 24-25 overall, but led two winning seasons, and did so with a lot of roster turnover and without many star players. Stunningly, he won four of his six games against Belichick’s Patriots, and seemed to have them figured out schematically.
In addition to Fitzpatrick, Flores has a well-rounded defense that is tough with respect to both the secondary and the pass rush. With an offensive line that has been porous all offseason and against Miami, and a group of skill positions still trying to find the right balance and chemistry, Flores is sure to make a game plan to exploit this. Furthermore, with the struggles and uncertainty in offensive playcalling, there could certainly be a mismatch in tactical planning, although Bill Belichick will help bridge that gap.
Can The Patriots Limit The Production Of Najee Harris?
While the Pittsburgh offense struggled overall against Cincinnati, they certainly still have good weapons. WR Chase Claypool and TE Pat Freiermuth made some key impacts on Sunday, but perhaps nobody is quite as fearsome on the offensive side of the team as Najee Harris. Harris is one of the latest in a line of extremely successful Saban running back products at Alabama, and had a great start to his career in Pittsburgh.
Harris got it done both in the catching game and running game, having a thousand-yard season from the get go with 1200 yards and seven TDs, and a whopping 74 receptions for 467 yards and three TDs. His 74 receptions was the most in the NFL in 2021 among running backs. As a running back, he’s very adept at finding and taking advantage of gaps, and has great raw speed and cutting ability, as well as an ability to get the tough yards. As a receiver, he also has sure hands, and translates his speed and agility to his routes and receptions.
Harris wasn’t very effective in his opener, but still had a receiving touchdown. However, he will likely start finding his form, and if he does, it will be tough for New England to stop him. The Patriots did quite well defensively overall, and the front seven especially was effective both in pass rush and against the run. The skillset of Najee will certainly test that group, however, and how they do against him will be a big factor in whether the Patriots can take the week two battle.
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