By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots and Steelers will likely have some of their most important players going directly head-to-head on Sunday night. In some cases, entire positional groupings will be key to victory.
Here are five key matchups to know before the season opener at Gillette Stadium.
CB Stephon Gilmore vs. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Steelers bring a different group of receivers to Foxboro this time around, as Smith-Schuster ascended to the No. 1 spot after the departure of Antonio Brown. Gilmore isn't necessarily guaranteed to cover him, but if he simply wiped Smith-Schuster out that would make Bill Belichick's defensive scheming a lot easier. J.C. Jackson (pictured above) held Smith-Schuster to just four catches on 10 targets in last December's game, so maybe he gets that assignment again.
The Steelers almost always play with three or four receivers, so watch out for how the Pats match their corners against Donte Moncrief, James Washington, and rookie Diontae Johnson as well.
Patriots safeties vs. TE Vance McDonald
McDonald burned Patrick Chung for a touchdown in last season's 17-10 win for the Steelers. Based on Jamie Collins' preseason usage, he's likely to stay active around the line of scrimmage rather than cover tight ends in space. Terrence Brooks covered the Panthers' Greg Olsen on the first drive of the Patriots' preseason dress rehearsal, while rookie CB Joejuan Williams even played some safety last week against the Giants.
A key third-down and red-zone weapon for the Steelers, McDonald scored three of his four touchdowns in 2018 from 12 yards or less. Ben Roethlisberger completed 71 percent of his third-down passes to McDonald, and three of the tight end's four scores also came on third down, including a 75-yard catch-and-run against the Bucs. Keeping the ball out of his hands in those situations would help the Patriots defense tremendously. That responsibility will likely fall on the safeties.
RT Marcus Cannon vs. OLB T.J. Watt
Watt terrorized the right side of the Patriots' offensive line in the last game, whether matched up against Cannon or a tight end. He's become the kind of threat that Belichick prefers to eliminate entirely. That didn't come close to happening last season, which swung the game tremendously in Pittsburgh's favor. Cannon has a big opportunity in front of him to get his revenge and neutralize a pass-rusher who's become one of the best in the NFL.
"He’s always working, he’s always trying to get to the quarterback, always coming from a different angle, trying new things, doing the things that he does the best and doing those all the time," Cannon said of Watt on Wednesday. "He’s getting better. He was already good, and now he’s getting better than he already was."
Patriots' interior offensive line vs. Steelers defensive line
It's hard to boil this down to just one guy vs. another. Double-teams will be necessary at times, and the target varies based on the Steelers' play-calling. But Pittsburgh has a complete defensive front, with interior defenders Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Cameron Heyward complementing edge rushers Bud Dupree and Watt. New starting center Ted Karras immediately gets a major test with both his pre-snap keys and blocking against that trio.
The Pats will need strong guard play out of Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason in this area, which they didn't consistently get last December. The Steelers found more daylight against Tom Brady as the game went along. So, as usual with the Patriots' pass protectors, consistency will be key.
DL Michael Bennett vs. Steelers' interior O-line
Bennett painted a vivid picture of attempting to bring down Roethlisberger on Wednesday, describing it as "tackling a truck". The hope is that Bennett leads the way disrupting things up front for the Patriots defense this season, starting with solving the Steelers' strong offensive interior of center Maurkice Pouncey and guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro.
As challenging as the Steelers defense will be in the trenches, the same goes for Bennett against pretty much anyone when he's at his best. He brings a presence in the middle of the fray that the Patriots have rarely had on his side of the ball. The onus will be on the Steelers in this matchup to keep Bennett from wrecking their plans.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].