It's a quick turnaround for the 2-10 Patriots coming off a disappointing 6-0 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, as New England travels to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers on Thursday Night Football. Bailey Zappe is expected to get his second-straight start, while the Steelers will also start their own backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky after starter Kenny Pickett was lost to an ankle injury last week. Also of note for the Patriots will be the absence of leading rusher Rhamondre Stevenson, who suffered an ankle injury as well last week and was already ruled out.
How can the Patriots break their losing streak in a battle of tough defenses without their best back? Here's the Patriots Unfiltered roundtable preview!
After getting a look at Bailey Zappe in his first start of the season, are there areas for improvement that could be made vs. the Steelers?
Zappe did what he was asked to do. Now, the line and the receivers have to do their part and that includes the tight ends. The Steelers won't make life easy for him. They'll look at what Khalil Mack and the Chargers did last Sunday and expect to do the same. A similar performance from Zappe's supporting cast will result in similar results. -Fred Kirsch
First and foremost he has to me more accurate with the football. I thought he missed on some makeable throws, especially in the first half, and cost himself some opportunities to keep drives alive. He needs to settle in and make the throws Thursday night. -Paul Perillo
Overall, I thought Zappe was marginally better by not turning the ball over and dancing out of a few sacks than recent Mac Jones performances. But that says more about the current state of quarterback play than Zappe making this offense better. I'd like to think Bill O'Brien will be able to put more on Zappe's plate this week than the watered down slant, screen, go route offense. That's the one area where you'd like to see them take a step forward with Zappe. -Evan Lazar
Areas for improvement in Bailey Zappe's first start of the season are getting rid of the ball quicker to avoid taking so many sacks and doing a better job of reading the field and finding the open receivers. I also think from a game plan standpoint they can let him air it out a little more early on in the game versus waiting until the second half like they did against the Chargers. -Tamara Brown
I thought Bailey made some solid throws under pressure and showed an ability to scramble and make a play. I think the more experience the better for him, especially in terms of his situational awareness and taking sacks that knock you out of field goal range. -Alex Francisco
Let 'er rip. After sitting through a 6-0 snoozer that featured 15 punts by both teams, I say throw caution to the wind and just try to make some downfield plays. There's nothing to lose. Let's at least make it entertaining. -Mike Dussault
How do you expect the Patriots to offset the loss of Rhamondre Stevenson in their backfield?
Ty Montgomery will have to see more action. We could also see Kevin Harris. Stevenson had been improving as the season wore on so it will be tough to replace his tough running between the tackles. Bill O'Brien will need to use motion and perhaps more spread formations to create running room for the backs. -FK
I would expect Ezekiel Elliott to assume the lead role and it's possible we get our first glimpse of JaMychal Hasty as well. Also, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Kevin Harris elevated from the practice squad. -PP
It'll be the Zeke Elliott show in the Patriots backfield with Ty Montgomery and potentially Kevin Harris as a practice squad elevation. In the interest of evaluating the roster for next season, I'd like to see Harris be the top spell back to Elliott. Harris showed promise in limited work as a rookie. Let's see if he can be a reliable RB3 moving forward. For Zeke, he's been good as a ball carrier, particularly on screens, but needs to improve in pass protection. -EL
I imagine a heavier workload for Ezekiel Elliott against the Steelers with the absence of Rhamondre Stevenson. I could also see Ty Montgomery and the tight ends having a larger role with Stevenson gone instead of elevating Kevin Harris from the practice squad. -TB
A highlight for me this season has been both Rhamondre and Zeke. Despite all the offensive woes, they've both run hard for this team, so it does kind of suck losing him. Such is life this season for the Patriots. I think Zeke can still be heavily relied on, and running the ball should remain a focus, but I think Zappe needs to get the tight ends more involved this week. -AF
I think it's going to be a heavy load for Zeke and I'm not sure we'll see much, if anything, from Hasty or Harris. My preference would be to work Harris in. He's been toiling on the practice squad all year and with no one other than Rhamondre under contract for 2024 it would be nice to find out if there's any chance Harris could be a part of next year's team. -M
Najee Harris could be limited but the Steelers still have Jaylen Warren. That said, what concerns you more in this game, the Steelers ground game or their passing attack with Trubisky under center?
While he never lived up to his draft status, Trubisky has won games in the NFL. As long as the front seven is healthy, I'm not worried about the Patriots run D. In fact, I love the way guys like Bentley, Tavai, Barmore and Godchaux have been playing. Let's not let Trubisky take advantage of his opportunity under center. -FK
Definitely the passing game, mostly due to the Steelers talented trio of George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. If Trubisky avoids turnovers and leans on his weapons, the Steelers could have success. But I do not worry about teams trying to run against the Patriots. -PP
Pittsburgh always seems to have some semblance of a running game with a tough offensive line. But the Patriots run defense leads the league in EPA as one of the stoutest run defenses in the NFL. For that reason, I have more concerns about pass defense, mainly keeping Trubisky in the pocket and matching up against Pittsburgh's big three: Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth. -EL
The Patriots defense has alleviated any worry that I would have with stopping the Steelers' ground attack. They've been stout all season and I don't see Thursday night being any different. The passing game will likely produce the most tests for this defense with guys like George Pickens and also Trubisky's ability to escape the pocket and scramble is something to keep an eye out for in this game. -TB
I have a lot of faith in the Patriots defense. Especially how they're playing of late, but if Harris is out then my concern is on Warren and the couple of throws the secondary is always liable to give up per game. -AF
It's the passing game that concerns me, even with a backup quarterback like Trubisky. The Pats run defense has been stout, no doubt, but I think their spotty pass rush is a potential flaw that hasn't been exposed the last handful of games, going back to Washington. The coverage was airtight and in sync last week, but I worry if Trubisky has time, he'll make plays in the passing game if the rush can't get to him and finish him off. -MD
If Khalil Mack was a major problem last week how concerned should the Pats be about TJ Watt and how can they prevent him from blowing up the entire gameplan?
Very concerned. There was a day when the Patriots were always able to neutralize an opponent's premier pass rusher. That doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. A combination of talent and communication has made things difficult for whoever the quarterback is and for O'Brien calling plays. -FK
Watt definitely needs some extra attention, but as we saw last week even double teams don't work when they're not executed properly. The guys up front need to be on the same page and be aware of Watt at all times. -PP
Very concerned. Watt is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, and it was disappointing to see Mack take over the game last week. In the past, the Pats would have a plan for a player of Mack or Watt's caliber, whether that's a good scouting report for their tackles or a team-wide approach. With Watt, he typically lines up over the right tackle, so it's a good bounce-back opportunity for Mike Onwenu, who had the most trouble with Mack last week. -EL
Khalil Mack was a huge problem in the backfield last week and to avoid TJ Watt doing what he does best, Bailey Zappe is going to have to be quicker with getting the ball out and be even more disciplined with taking care of the football. The obvious answer is the offensive line will need to have one of the best games all season in terms of protecting Zappe, but he will also need to do his part. -TB
Tough seeing Trent Brown still on the injury report, for sure. Hopefully, he's upgraded from limited participation, but this is an answer I just don't have. The o-line has just not shown enough consistency for me to think they'll be able to overcome not only TJ Watt, but a healthier Cameron Hayward. The Steelers have a legitimately good defense in my opinion, and scoring points won't come easy. -AF
Watt is a huge concern, just listen to Bill Belichick this week go on for over two minutes highlighting how good he is. And after seeing what Mack did to Onwenu off the edge, where he showed why Onwenu's truly best fit is inside at guard, it's not hard to see Watt doing the same. The offense will need to find him before every snap and make sure he's accounted for. -MD
Do you think there's a place for Malik Cunningham in the gameplan this week?
Absolutely. Put him out there in some wildcat packages or similar to what the Patriots did with Marcus Jones way back when. Always good to have more speed on the field assuming he can execute what's being asked of him. -FK
The key will be for the Patriots offense to stay on the field long enough for Cunningham to be worked into the mix. If they can sustain some drives, then definitely get Cunningham some snaps and see if he can provide a spark with his legs. -PP
Although he suggested otherwise, my theory is the Patriots might've had a goal-line/red zone package for Cunningham last week that they never got to use. If they can get into the red zone this week, maybe we see Cunningham. In other words, I'm not sure we'll get a Cunningham drive. If he's used, it's probably for a specific situation. -EL
With it being a short week against a Steelers defense that has multiple first team all pro selections, I don't see this being a game where Malik Cunningham should be used but I'm all for switching things up to catch Pittsburgh by surprise if it's the right play call. What they drew up for him a month ago didn't move the needle which makes me weary to use him against a stout defensive opponent like the Steelers. -TB
I think I hope so just to make things interesting, but if things remain the way they are with the number of Patriots receivers on the injury report, why not roll him out at receiver and see what happens? I feel like seeing him at QB is a pipe dream for me at this point but I'd love to see it. -AF
Sure. I don't think Malik Cunningham will be the answer at quarterback but I think there could be a handful of plays he could run that he could give the Steelers some issues with. -MD
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