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MORSE: Patriots Preview – A Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers

Mark Morse
Mark Morse on Twitter
December 7, 2023 at 3:13 pm ET

MORSE: Patriots Preview – A Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers(PHOTO: Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports)
Posted: Dec 07, 2023 03:13
🕑 Read Time: 7 minutes

I hate Thursday Night games.  The teams don’t have enough time off between games to properly prepare for the opponent and the players don’t get the rest they need to recover from the previous Sunday’s game.  The product ends up being diluted because of this.  Is it possible for the Patriots to score negative points this week?

OFFENSE
3WR 1TE
STARTER 2ND 3RD 4TH
QB Kenny Pickett O Mitch Trubisky Mason Rudolph
RB Najee Harris Q Jaylen Warren Godwin Igwebuike Anthony McFarland
WR Diontae Johnson Miles Boykin
WR George Pickens Calvin Austin
WR Allen Robinson
TE Pat Freiermuth Darnell Washington Connor Heyward Rodney Williams
LT Dan Moore
LG Isaac Seumalo Q Nate Herbig Spencer Anderson
C Mason Cole Q Nate Herbig
RG James Daniels Nate Herbig
RT Broderick Jones Chukwuma Okorafor Dylan Cook

 

Everything starts with the Pittsburgh Offensive line.  This tidbit from Warren Sharp, “the 2022 (Pittsburgh) line was the cheapest in the NFL”.

Last season Moore (49th) and Okorafor (53rd) were subpar in pressure rate allowed. Moore ended the year 61st among tackles in overall grade at Pro Football Focus while Okorafor was 64th. Keep in mind, there are only 64 starting tackles in the NFL at any point in time.  LT Dan Moore somehow kept his starting job, but he is suspect.

LG Isaac Seumalo is listed as Questionable per the ESPN Report, after not participating on Monday and Wednesday.   Seumalo is a 3rd Round (#79) 2016 draft choice of Philadelphia, he was signed by Pittsburgh this year as a Free Agent as part of their rebuilding of the Offensive Line.  In 2022 Seumalo was a Pro Bowl Alternate.

At C is Mason Cole.  Cole has made an enormous leap. In 2021 in Minnesota, he recorded the 5th-worst pass blocking grade among qualified centers and allowed pressure on 8.1% of pass blocking snaps, the highest rate in the NFL. In 2022, Cole graded out as the overall 12th-best center in the entire NFL.

RG is now manned by James Daniels, a 2018 2nd round (#39) draft choice of Chicago.  Daniels played Left Guard and Center for Chicago.  He signed with Pittsburgh in 2022.  The 6’4”, 327 lb. Iowa alum is a versatile interior lineman that has moved to the right side for Pittsburgh.  Daniels is ranked 22nd and Seumalo is ranked 23rd by PFF.  In comparison Sidy Sow is 20th and Cole Strange 27th.

The poor play of both Tackles prompted the Steelers to draft a tackle high in the first round (finally), taking OT Broderick Jones out of Georgia at No. 14 overall. This pick was obtained from the Patriots.   Brandon Jones will always be compared to Christian Gonzalez because of the trade and the need on the Offensive Line that the Patriots didn’t address in the draft.  Jones isn’t playing Left Tackle.  I would never draft a 1st round Tackle who couldn’t play Left Tackle.  Oh yeah, the patriots took Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow, and Atonio Mafi in the draft.  But they are all Interior Offensive Lineman and were taken in the 4th and 5th rounds.  Sow and Mafi show promise, but they played Sow at RT all pre-season and he started there the 1st few games in the regular season.  He got his head handed to him.  Mafi is very inexperienced at the position having switched from DL at UCLA as a Sophomore.  The jury is out on Jake Andrews, but I haven’t seen anything I like in him.

Another gem from Warren Sharp “Pittsburgh used the same offensive line combination on 94.6% of their plays last season, the highest rate in the league. Every starter appeared in all 17 games.”

QB Kenny Pickett has been ruled out and will be replaced by Mitch Trubisky.  Last week against Arizona Trubisky didn’t play badly.  He was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a TD without throwing any INT.  The Patriots beat Trubisky last year 17-14 but Trubisky played well completing 64% of his passes 21 of 33 for 165 yards a TD and INT.  That was perhaps Mac Jones best game of the year throwing for 252 yards.

Najee Harris is the lead back, but he is listed as Questionable and did not practice on Tuesday or Wednesday.  It looks like he will not play and if so, the main ball carrier will be the very capable Jaylen Warren.  He has 102 carries for 602 yards and a 5.9 YPC, with 3 TDs.    Godwin Igwebuike and Anthony McFarland are listed as backups but neither has had a carry this season.

George Pickens is now the number one receiver for the Steelers.  He has 44 receptions on 78 targets for 748 yards (17.0) YPC and 3 TDs.  Dionte Johnson has been supplanted and is now the number two receiver, and he doesn’t like it.  From what I have seen from him this year I wouldn’t want him on my team.  He has quit on plays and given minimal effort on others plays when he is not getting the ball.  Pouting like a little child when he can’t get his way.  Allen Robinson and Calvin Austin are dangerous receivers as backups.

Pat Freiermuth has emerged as a gifted TE.  The former Penn State Nittany Lion grew up in Merrimac MA and attended Brooks Academy in North Andover.   He has 21 catches on 30 targets for 209 yards and 2 TDs.  Conor Heyward chipped in for 19 catches.  They also have former 2 x National Champion Georgia Bulldog Darnell Washington.

DEFENSE
Base 3-4 D
STARTER 2ND 3RD 4TH
LDE Larry Ogunjobi Armon Watts
NT Montravius Adams Keeanu Benton O Renell Wren IR
RDE Cameron Heyward DeMarvin Leal
WLB T.J. Watt Markus Golden
LILB Mykal Walker Mark Robinson Blake Martinez Cole Holcomb IR
RILB Elandon Roberts Q Kwon Alexander IR Chapelle Russell IR
SLB Alex Highsmith Nick Herbig
LCB Patrick Peterson Levi Wallace Chandon Sullivan
SS Damontae Kazee Miles Killebrew Keanu Neal IR
FS Minkah Fitzpatrick Trenton Thompson Elijah Riley IR
RCB Joey Porter Jr. James  Pierre Q Darius Rush Cory Trice Jr. IR

 

We start by looking at the D-Line who is anchored by RDE Cam Heyward the 34-year-old former Ohio State Buckeye.  Playing in his 13th year, the 2010 1st round pick (#31) is a legacy player with the Steelers.  He is the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward who passed away in 2006.  Cam helped me win a Patriots draft contest back in 2010.  I correctly picked the 30th, 31st, and 32nd picks in the 1st round and received a Jacket from the Patriots.  He is a 3-time 1st team All Pro, a second team All Pro, 6- time Pro Bowl selection and future Hall of Fame Player.  Heyward has only played in 6 games this season.

LDE Larry Ogunjobi leads the D-line in tackles with 31.  He has 2 sacks and plays more like a DT, like the Patriots 3-4 defense.    NT is manned by Montravious Adams.  The former Auburn Tiger has 21 tackles in just 8 games.  He is 6’4” 305 lbs, but has trouble putting pressure on the QB, and has no sacks this season.

The strength of the defense is TJ Watt at LB.  He has 14 sacks and is one of the premier pass rushers in the league, he will be matched up against Mike Owenu, however Pittsburgh likes to move him around.  Look for Watt to make that delayed inside blitz with the DT going across the face of the guard and looping out around the tackle.  The other outside Linebacker is Alex Highsmith.  The 6’4” 242 lb backer played at Charlotte and was a 3rd round (#102) selection in the 2020 draft.  He has 46 tackles this season.  Old friend Elandon Robets leads the Steelers in tackles with 80 and added 1.5 sacks.  The short ILB was a 2016 6th round (#214) draft choice of the Patriots.  Mykal Walker is the other ILB.  He was 4th round (#119) selection by Atlanta in 2020.  He bounced around the league on Practice Squads before finding a home in Pittsburgh.  He has only played in 3 games and has 17 tackles.  Cole Holcomb has 54 tackles in 8 games but is now on IR as is Kwon Alexander.  Blake Martinez is a backup Inside Linebacker.

The secondary is led by FS Minkah Fitzpatrick. He is second on the team in tackles with 59 but has no Interceptions.  Fitzpatrick was the 1st round (#11) selection of the Miami Dolphins in 2018.  The former Alabama Crimson Tide player holds the record for INT in a game for Alabama and the NCAA record for INT TD returns in a career (4).  Among his accolades. Fitzpatrick is a 2-time NCAA Champ, 3-time 1st team All-Pro, and 3-time Pro Bowl selection.  In 2020 trade Miami sent Fitzpatrick, their 4th round pick and a 7th round selection to Pittsburgh for the Steelers 1st rounds pick, their 5th round and 6th in the following year.

LCB Patrick Peterson is no slouch either.  The now 33-year-old is still playing at a high level.  Entering his 13th year in the league, Peterson is highly decorated.  He has been selected to the 1st team All-Pro 3 times, 8 times Pro Bowl, and is likely headed to Canton and the Hall of Fame when his playing days are done.  He is durable too, playing in all 12 games and making 31 tackles.  However, his skills have eroded, and he is ranked 77th among CBs in the league by PFF.  With 64 starters, that would indicate he is a bench player not a starter.  By comparison, Jonathan Jones is ranked 33 and both Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade are ranked slightly higher.

RCB is manned by rookie Joey Porter Jr.  Another Pittsburgh legacy, Porter is the son of the former LB of the same name.  He was selected in the 2nd round (#32 – Miami forfeited their 2023 1st round pick making the 1st round only 31 selections) and is ranked 30th by PFF this season.

SS is patrolled by Damonte Kazee.  PFF has him ranked 57th, by comparison Kyle Dugger is 50th and Jabrill Peppers is 4th.  The 30-year-old was a 2017 5th round (#149) selection by Atlanta out of San Diego State.  Kazee has had some injury problems in his career, tearing his Achilles in 2020 and a broken arm in 2022.   He was also suspended three games for a violation of banned substances.  However, Pittsburgh saw enough in him to sign him to a two-year extension.  He has 57 tackles this year and 2 INTs.

Special Teams
STARTER 2ND 3RD
PK Chris Boswell
P Pressley Harvin III
H Pressley Harvin III
PR Calvin Austin
KR Godwin Igwebuike Jaylen Warren Anthony McFarland
LS Christian Kuntz

 

Chris Boswell is ranked 15th among kickers and is making 91% of his kicks (22 of 24).  He is very consistent, and he kicks in one of the more difficult places to kick.  Acrisure Stadium is known for swirling winds as it is at the junction of three rivers.

Pressley Harvin is a relatively unknown punter.  He is ranked 8th by Pro Football Reference with a 44.7-yard average.  Bryce Baringer is third with 47.6 average and 44% of his kicks inside the 20.  He is the only Patriots player in consideration for the Pro Bowl.

Returner Calvin Austin is 20th in the league with a 7.1 average on 21 Punt returns.   No Steeler has registered enough Kickoff returns to register in the database.

 

I expect this to be a very close (and boring) game with both teams desperately trying to generate some offense.  The Patriots’ defense is ranked 7th in Yards per Play with Pittsburgh ranked 20th.  The Steelers are 6th in Points Allowed, giving up 19 pts per game.  The Patriots are ranked 15th, giving up 21.2 pts a game.  This game may come down to which team wins the turnover battle, which team has the better Special Teams play and whether either team can generate a Defensive TD.  The disrespect for the Patriots and Steelers is widespread as the Las Vegas betting Over/Under number is set at 30 points combined by both teams.

READ NEXT:
Did The Patriots Blow Their Season By Winning?

About Mark Morse

Merrimack Valley native and lifelong fan of the New England Patriots. My earliest memories of the Patriots were attending as a child with my dad, the off-season practice at Phillips Academy. I was at the Patriots game at Harvard Stadium in 1970 where Bob “Harpo” Gladieux was called out of the stands by the stadium announcer over the PA to play in the game. Analyzing the draft since ESPN first started to televise it in 1980 and former writer for the Lowell Sun Newspaper.


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