Facing familiar faces: Patriots vs. Steelers key matchups
September 16th, 2022
It’s been three years since the Patriots last played the Steelers, with their last matchup coming in the 2019 season opener. Sunday’s game will end the longest gap between games the two sides have had since they didn’t meet between 1998 and 2002, when the most recent NFL expansion reconfigured the season schedule.
“I can’t remember the last time we’ve gone three years without playing the Steelers,” Belichick said to reporters on Wednesday. “It seems like it’s been — a team we use to play every year. But, obviously, it’s been a little while. Some definite changes since the last time we saw them.”
A lot has chanced since that banner-raising night in 2019. Both teams have seen the departure of franchise cornerstone quarterbacks, amid significant roster turnover. There are just nine players left on the Steelers who played in that game, while the Patriots have 12 players from that game still on their roster.
Still, there are familiar faces across the field for other reasons. There are former teammates in college and at the NFL level at key positions, as well as coaching connections too. We’ll explore some of those in this week’s key matchups.
When New England has the ball: Mac Jones vs. Minkah Fitzpatrick
CINCINNATI, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 11: Minkah Fitzpatrick #39 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns an interception for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Mac Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick overlapped for one year at Alabama, in 2017. Fitzpatrick was one of the captains on a Crimson Tide team that went 13-1 and beat Georgia in the National Championship, while Jones was a true freshman scout team quarterback.
“He was like the epitome of just a great football player and person,” Jones said of Fitzpatrick on Wednesday. “I looked up to him a lot at Alabama and he was a great team captain and leader on our team. Obviously, he’s done great things with the Steelers. You’ve just got to know where he’s at. He’s a great player. He makes really good plays and obviously, off the field, he’s an even better person. That was something that I learned from him. Super easy going, just really easy to talk to, friendly with everybody. So, I have a lot of respect for him.”
Fitzpatrick has indeed done great things with the Steelers since being acquired via trade two games into his second NFL season. A versatile defensive back, just last week he had a team-high 14 tackles and a pick-six.
As Jones pointed out, it’s paramount he’s aware of Fitzpatrick before every play. The Steelers will line him up all around the field at multiple positions (deep safety, box safety, cornerback), and he can make impact plays from any spot. With T.J. Watt out with a pec injury, Fitzpatrick is Pittsburgh’s most dynamic playmaker on that side of the ball. It will be crucial for Jones to keep an eye on him and not give him any chances to flip the game.
When Pittsburgh has the ball: Najee Harris vs. Patriots linebackers
CINCINNATI, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 11: Najee Harris #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Last year, one of the Patriots’ biggest issues defensively was dealing with running backs in the passing game. They didn’t get tested too much in that regard in the opener, but that should change this week against Pittsburgh with Najee Harris.
As a rookie last season, Harris caught 74 passes for 467 yards (on top of 1,200 yards rushing). As Bill Belichick pointed out on Wednesday, Harris “is a problem” for defenses.
Harris is dealing with a foot injury, but seems confident he’ll be on the field and a full go against the Patriots this week. He was a full participant at practice on Thursday.
The Patriots made a point of getting younger, faster, and more athletic at the linebacker position this offseason. This is the exact kind of matchup where that kind of change should show up in their favor, both in coverage and keeping him hemmed in in the running game. Harris’ injury only hammers home the fact that the Patriots should be able to keep him in check. He’s arguably the Steelers’ most dynamic offensive weapon, but the Patriots have a chance to limit his impact in this game to minimal at best.
BONUS: Matt Patricia vs. Brian Flores
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 11: Senior Football Advisor Matt Patricia of the New England Patriots looks on during the preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 11, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Matt Patricia and Brian Flores spent over a decade together in New England. Flores then replaced Patricia as the team’s defensive play-caller when Patricia left to be the head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2018.
Now, the two will somewhat go head-to-head this week. Patricia is the offensive play-caller for the Patriots, and while Flores isn’t the Steelers’ defensive coordinator (that title belongs to Teryl Austin) his fingerprints were all over their defensive game plan in Week 1. Given his familiarity with Patricia and the Patriots, it stands to reason he’ll play a key role in the Steelers’ planning this week.
When the Patriots have the ball, key adjustments and decisions will heavily fall to these two men who have worked closely in the past. It’s a bit of an under-the-radar matchup, but it should be a fun one if you know what to look for.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.