It will be a quick turnaround for the Patriots coming off their second home shutout loss of the 2023 season as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a Week 14 matchup between two teams that have struggled to score points this season. The Patriots are 32nd in points while the Steelers are 28th but will be forced to start backup Mitch Trubisky after an injury to starter Kenny Pickett.
Despite New England's fifth-straight loss, Bailey Zappe is expected to get the start for the second time in five days, as the Patriots look to break the 10-point scoring barrier for the first time since putting up 17 against the Commanders back in Week 9. Despite the lack of scoring prowess by both teams, their defenses feature plenty of playmakers who could quickly alter the course of the game.
Here are the things to watch in Pittsburgh on Thursday night!
Zappe Two It
In his first start of the 2023 season, Bailey Zappe completed 13-of-25 passes for 141 yards, while taking five sacks yet still demonstrating some surprising escapability. Zappe refrained from turning the ball over, an important key, but one that did not make a dent in the scoreboard. Add all those elements up and it's a good bet that Zappe will start again vs. the Steelers but can he make any significant strides over the short week of preparation? He took some shots down the field against the Chargers and should have a similar opportunity against the Steelers, but he'll need to complete them to make a real difference. There were more plays to be made in the passing game last week and if Zappe can build on his performance and start hitting some of those shots, the Patriots offense might get in gear.
Let Zeke Eat
Rhamondre Stevenson's ankle injury against the Chargers was a major blow to the team's offense, Stevenson has been their best weapon this season, having rushed for almost 100 yards in each of the team's previous three games, while raising his season average to 4.0 yards-per-carry. With limited depth behind Ezekiel Elliott, it's tough to know how the Patriots will approach the short week. Practice squadder Kevin Harris has been around all season and is a good bet to get his first game action of the season, while recent addition JaMychal Hasty might also be in line to get an opportunity after arriving last month. The Steelers have allowed 100-yard rushers in all but three games this season, that has to be something for the Patriots to target if they have their personnel in order. This could be a golden opportunity for Elliott to carry a full load for the first time this season.
Tackles vs. Edge Rushers
After surrendering six sacks against the Chargers, the Patriots offensive line gets no break with the arrival of TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith and their 20 combined sacks. Watt had some injury issues near the end of the Cardinals loss, but was missing from the week's early injury reports indicating that Pittsburgh's biggest game wrecker will be good to go. Trent Brown and Michael Onwenu allowed six pressures combined, with five coming from Onwenu's right tackle side, against the Chargers. LA also finished the game off with two sacks on third and fourth down. The protection will have to better against the Steelers because Watt can be even more dangerous than Khalil Mack, who racked up six pressures vs. New England.
Containing Najee Harris
While the two passing offenses have struggled this season, perhaps the most interesting matchup of the contest will be how Pittsburgh's two running backs -- Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren -- stack up against the Patriots stout run defense. Last week was a clinic for New England as they held the Chargers to an eye-popping 1.2 yards per attempt, with Austin Ekeler producing just 18 yards on 14 carries. Harris and Warren are a nice complementary duo, both have over 600 rushing yards and seven combined touchdowns, while Warren has done a little extra damage in the passing game catching 38 passes for 243 yards. As a team, the Steelers have rushed for well over 100 yards in each of their last five games, including over 200 against the Packers in Week 10. The Patriots run defense can't abandon them now, or it's a sure way to an L.
Covering Pickens, Johnson and Robinson
It's not like the Steelers don't have threats at the receiver position. George Pickens had 800 yards as a rookie and Diontae Johnson and Allen Robinson have four 1,000-yard receiving years on their respective resumes. But the team has yet to find their stride through the air this season as the potent trio has combined for 116 catches between all three of them. Pickens remains the top threat and is a physical player who can make acrobatic catches, but Robinson and Johnson should still give the Patriots secondary plenty to think about. New England turned in perhaps their best coverage game of the season against the Chargers, with very few breakdowns and airtight coverage that made things difficult for Justin Herbert. With a repeat performance, they'll put a lot of pressure on Mitch Trubisky to make the right reads and throws.
Trubisky In Again
Of course, the biggest piece of the passing attack equation will be Trubisky, expected to start in place of Kenny Pickett, who reportedly underwent surgery on an injured ankle earlier this week. Trubisky has made three appearances this season, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 59.2 percent of his passes. Last year against Trubisky, the Patriots pulled out a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh while containing the Steeler quarterback to 21-of-38 for 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Trusbisky is an experienced vet with some nice weaponry around him, and he even threw for over 300 yards against the Patriots as a rookie in 2018. Based on that, New England should respect his potential and look to unleash another strong defensive performance to shut him down. Getting those finishing sacks is vital for this defense to take the next step, especially if they can use pressure to score points off of turnovers.
Careful of Fitzpatrick
Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the best safeties in the game and returned to the lineup last week against Arizona after battling a hamstring injury that cost him the month of November. His importance to the Steeler defense can't be understated as Pittsburgh is 4-3 this season with him in the lineup. The 2022 All-Pro is coming off arguably the best season of his career and now will be looking to regain that form after putting the injury behind him. Zappe played safe with the ball last week against the Chargers, but Fitzpatrick is around the ball a lot and has a knack for forcing mistakes.
Win the Special Teams Battle
Another week, another collection of letdowns by the Patriots special teams. This time it was two big punt returns that helped set up the Chargers only two scores of the game. The previous two weeks it was Chad Ryland's missed field goals that cost the Pats important points on the scoreboard. For all the attention the offense has gotten, the 31st-ranked (DVOA) special teams have got to turn a corner this year and start enabling wins instead of holding the team back. Injuries have them down to their third-string punt returner but the rest of the teams are largely intact as constructed this summer, led by Matthew Slater, Brenden Schooler and Chris Board. Just as we're waiting for the defense to get a score, we're also waiting for the special teams to positively impact that game in a tangible way, something absent since Week 2's punt block.
Get Tight with the Tight Ends
The tight ends on both teams could be an underrated factor this week, though all three of New England's were extremely quiet last week against the Chargers. Hunter Henry has been among the team's best offensive players this season but Henry has just two catches for 15 yards over the last two weeks. Mike Gesicki has just two catches for 22 yards in his last four games as the position that is supposed to be a quarterback's best friend has slowly seen its effectiveness and production drop out of sight. On the Pittsburgh side, Pat Freiermuth has shown some flashes in his third season after spending time on IR with a hamstring issue in October. He had nine catches for 120 yards two weeks ago against the Bengals, a performance that could catch the eye of the Patriots safety and linebacker groups.
Finally, at 2-10 it might be hard to find bright spots to the Patriots season, but make sure to keep an eye on a few players that have continued to play with their hair on fire like Jabrill Peppers, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai. Really, the whole defense deserves credit for the continuing hard play, especially along the defensive line, but that trio continues to supply energy on the defensive side of the ball. Against the Chargers, they were coming downhill hard, especially against the run. The second level of the defense has been very good this year, largely because of that trio and how they've ably helped fill in for the loss of Matthew Judon. Anfernee Jennings has also been a name worthy of recognition as he's put together his best year in his fourth season.